Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A letter to Dad on Veterans Day November 11, 2021

U.S. Army Cpl. Elvern Kletscher, my father, in the trenches in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

DEAR DAD,

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry I didn’t take the time to ask. And then to listen.

I’m sorry I didn’t recognize earlier that you were suffering.

I’m sorry I was too busy with my own life and family to realize that I could have, should have, tried to understand.

An in-ground marker honors my father, Elvern Kletscher, a Korean War veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he suffered at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea while killing a sniper. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2011)

Nearly 19 years have passed now since your burial, since that brutally cold early April day when I wrapped my arm around Mom in the wind-swept hilltop Vesta Cemetery. I felt her body shivering, shaking with grief as she accepted a folded American flag.

Moments like that imprint upon me as I remember you—husband, father, grandfather, son, brother…and veteran.

You were buried with military honors. The firing of guns. The mournful playing of taps. An in-ground military marker notes your final rank as a sergeant in the US Army. Awarded the Purple Heart, albeit 47 years after you were wounded on Heartbreak Ridge in Korea.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, left, with two of his soldier buddies in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

Today, on Veterans Day, I think of you. Honor you. And consider how fighting as a boots-on-the-ground combat soldier in the mountains of Korea forever changed you.

I recall the few stories you shared through the decades. You watched as a mortar killed your friend Ray, who was scheduled to leave Korea the next day. He left behind a wife and infant daughter. Dad, your grief led me to search for that “baby” two years after your death. I found Teri living in Iowa and with only minimal knowledge of her birth father. I have yet to meet her, but want to some day.

Some day. Days and weeks and months and years pass and then some day is too late. Now I hold a shoebox brimming with curled black-and-white photos and other items from your time in the Army. Your Selective Service System registration certificate. A well-worn mini black book of prayers, hymns and devotions from the Ladies Aid in Vesta. Faith and prayer carried you through many a hellish day and night in Korea.

On the back of this photo, my dad simply penned “a letter from home.” I appreciate this photo of my dad taken by an unknown buddy in Korea. (From my father’s photo collection)

In a letter to your parents, a copy tucked into a folder labeled “Korea” in my office file cabinet, you termed the war-torn Asian country a “hell hole.” Likewise, an over-sized embroidered decal declares “RETURNED FROM HELL.”

I have no doubt that war was hell for you. “Shoot or be shot,” I remember you saying. You spoke, too, of bitter cold, of hunger, of orphans begging for food across barbed wire fences. Of horrible war-time atrocities that I can’t bear to write here.

My dad carried this memorial service bulletin home from Korea. In the right column is listed the name of his fallen buddy, Raymond W. Scheibe. (From my father’s collection)

And then when you arrived home—bringing with you a folded memorial service bulletin from Sucham-dong, Korea, dated July 31, 1953, and including your buddy Ray’s name—the horror and grief you experienced remained. But few, if any, acknowledged your struggles back then. You were expected to resume life as usual, returning to rural Minnesota to farm the land, to milk cows, to marry and raise a family. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not yet recognized.

I’m sorry, Dad. Sorry about the neighbor who laughed as you dove to the ground when a rifle fired during pheasant hunting.

I’m sorry, Dad, for the fear you felt when guns fired during a small town parade.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you like I should have been.

Near the end of your life, you found empathy and care in your veterans’ support group. That comforts me. Those men understood what you’d experienced. For that I am grateful. They provided the emotional support I failed to give you. I’m sorry, Dad. So sorry.

With love,

Audrey

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

13 Responses to “A letter to Dad on Veterans Day”

  1. Happy Veterans Day to those that served and are serving – thank you for your service and keeping us safe and secure! I am rocking the red, white and blue today in their honor. Thanks so much for sharing about your father. Take Care and Enjoy your day 🙂

  2. Valerie Says:

    Very touching Audrey. I’m sure it was a therapeutic exercise too.

  3. Audrey-
    What a touching tribute to your Dad.

    Heartbreak Ridge was brutal from all accounts I have studied over the years.

    I have known and served with many veterans who wish not to constantly relive the horrors of war. Sharing the horrors or memories with only a very trusted few. Protecting their families from the cruelty of war by not talking about it.

    Some of us choose to live with our conditions of PTSD in silence and not live each day advertising we have such a thing. Wishing it would go away. In time some of it does but truly the images most have to endure in war zones are imprinted on our souls.

    I am so glad we have moved more towards understanding in our culture, away from laughing at someone who “hit the ground” when pheasant hunting. I hope.

    The sacrifices we all have made as families of veterans and veterans must never be taken for granted.

    Enjoy your day with peace, blessings and love.

    • Paula, I appreciate your sharing your insights, thoughts and experiences in dealing with PTSD. I also appreciate all you have done in service to our country. I wish for you the same– a day of peace, blessings and loved. You are valued. You are heard. You are loved.

  4. Charles Paul Ziegler Says:

    Audrey,

    Thanks for this. My father, from a farm near Seaforth, Minnesota, served 44 months in World War 2 in the European Theater of Operations. Fortunately, he was “just” among the support troops, but “beans and bullets” are important, too. After all, even Napoleon acknowledged that “an army travels on it stomach.” In his case, he was in a tire repair company, and as he spoke German (learned along with English at home) he had German POWs working under him. As a kid, I thought that tire repair was pretty lame for a soldier, but then I learned that, due to the lack of serviceable ports on the continent at that time, all the supplies for the guys at the “sharp end of the stick” had to be moved to the battlefront by truck! He did not serve in combat, as he was 31 when he was drafted in 1942, which is a bit old for the infantry, though I don’t doubt that had he been drafted in 1944, such was the shortage of available infantry he would have been a “dogface” like his brother, who saw combat in Italy and was awarded the Bronze Star.

    The paternal grandfather of my British wife was gassed twice on the Western Front in World War I while serving in the British Army, an experience which certainly shortened his life. Two of her uncles were killed serving as flight crew in the RAF in World War II. So Armistice/Veterans Day is a day of remembrance for my family.

    • Charles, thank you for sharing about your, and your wife’s, family roles in the military. You make a good point with your “beans and bullets” reference. Every single person and position held value. Teamwork, discipline, trust, all vital to making a military unit work effectively.

      I’m sorry for the loss of your wife’s uncles and for all her grandfather went through on the Western Front.

      I appreciate your sharing this. It is the stories, the personal side, that make war more than just a word or an action taken by a country. We need to remember that human side.

  5. What a beautiful tribute to your dad, acknowledging the thoughts and feelings he must have had. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain….in so many ways, the things these brave men endured and then never had the chance to “debrief”. I’m sorry for you too Audrey, I know you loved your dad so much! But don’t be too hard on yourself, Life moves us in different ways, and each stage of life changes what we are capable of understanding.
    I’m so thankful for the men and women thru the years that have kept us free.

  6. JanBeek Says:

    Heart wrenching! Please know that your apology is accepted. Your dad has forgiven you. God forgives you. Now you need to forgive yourself! As Jackie so eloquently reminded us, “Life moves us in different ways, and each stage of life changes what we are capable of understanding.” Your dad knew that. God bless you, Audrey.


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