Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall rolling into Faribault August 29, 2016

AS A TEENAGER OF THE EARLY 1970s, the Vietnam War proved part of my life in the fringe sort of way war does when you’re an emerging adult.

Along with my too short hot pants ensemble and my shiny go-go boots, I sported a POW bracelet, the shiny medal banding my wrist with the name of an American soldier held captive by the Viet Cong. I wish I remembered his name or even what happened to that bracelet. It may be stashed away in a cardboard box in a closet. To even write that seems dishonorable. How could I not give more respect to a prisoner of war who deserved my gratitude?

This week I will have a local opportunity to honor those who died in the Vietnam War, the war from which veterans arrived home without a nation’s welcome. Protests prevailed. I remember.

traveling wall logo


Thankfully attitudes have changed. This Wednesday, the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall rolls into Faribault for a six-day stay at the Rice County Fairgrounds. I am grateful to the individuals, businesses and organizations—like the Faribault Elks, multiple American Legion Posts, the local VFW Post and the Marine Corps League—that worked hard to bring this 80 percent scale version of the wall here to southeastern Minnesota.

Stock image courtesy of the Traveling Wall Faribualt 2016.

Stock image courtesy of the Traveling Wall Faribualt 2016.

Perhaps my POW’s name is imprinted on that wall, among the 58,282 Americans who died in this war. I will search for one name, that of Benjamin Franklin Danielson whose fighter jet was shot down over Laos in 1969. I remember the media coverage when this Minnesota soldier’s remains were returned to his native Kenyon in 2007, several years after bone fragments were found to match his DNA. I expect many individuals will be looking for names of loved ones or classmates or others on this 360-foot long by eight foot high replica wall.

Stock image courtesy of Traveling Wall Faribault 2016.

Stock image courtesy of Traveling Wall Faribault 2016.

But before the temporary memorial goes up on the north side of Faribault, it will arrive in my community of 23,000 Wednesday afternoon under escort by law enforcement, fire department personnel, bikers and others in private vehicles. Organizers emphasize that this is not a parade but rather a solemn procession. Those living aside the route from Owatonna along County Road 45 to Medford and then into Faribault are encouraged to line the roadway with American flags and to show their support.

Between two military uniforms, I shot this view of a 48-star American flag.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I live along the processional route. Those who know me personally and would like to join me in my front yard are welcome to do so. Dress in patriotic attire and bring American flags and patriotic items plus a lawn chair. I expect the entourage to pass my home around 3:20 – 3:30 p.m.

At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, the traveling wall debuts with a grand opening ceremony. The memorial remains open 24/7 until the closing ceremony at 1 p.m. on Labor Day. What a great opportunity this will be for us, as a community, as a county, as Minnesotans, as Americans, to honor those like Benjamin Danielson and my unidentified POW. Decades after I clamped that POW bracelet around my wrist, I understand the significance of this opportunity.

FYI: Many related events are planned in conjunction with the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall exhibit in Faribault. Click here to learn details. And click here to learn about the original memorial wall in Washington, DC.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An unbelievable 83,451 still missing March 23, 2012

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A tribute to POWs and MIAs at the veterans' memorial in Northfield.

United States suspends recovery of troop remains in North Korea

I nearly skipped over the AP article on page A5 of my local daily newspaper. But then I paused, allowed my eyes to linger on the headline before reading the heartbreaking story.

Just as efforts to find American service members missing during the Korean War were set to resume, that mission has been suspended. The action comes on the heels of North Korea’s plans to rocket-launch a satellite in apparent violation of United Nations’ sanctions.

That’s the situation in a nutshell. Hopeful families who have been waiting for the return of their loved ones for more than 60 years still wait.

I cannot imagine. The wait. The not knowing. The pain in losing a child to war. How many mothers and fathers of Korean War veterans have died without bringing their soldier boys back home for proper burial? Many.

The statistics shocked me. I had no idea that 7,960 Americans are unaccounted for from the Korean War, according to the Defense Prisoner of War-Missing Personnel Office, U.S. Department of Defense. Among the missing/unaccounted for are 146 Minnesotans. Click here to read that list.

But the numbers are even more staggering when you consider the totals for wars from World War II through the 1991 Gulf War. There are 83,451 Americans missing. That’s almost the entire population of Duluth. Most of the unaccounted for, 73,690, served during WW II.

Yet, until you begin thinking of the missing in terms of names, the totals seem merely overwhelming statistics that cannot be comprehended. So I went to the DPMO website and clicked on news releases. There I found what I was seeking—the names of soldiers gone missing in Korea and who, all these years later, have been identified through the use of modern-day forensics.

Just to explain, North Korea gave the U.S. 208 boxes of remains believed to be those of 200-400 U.S. servicemen, according to the DPMO.

Among the recently-identified remains are those of Army Cpl. William R. Sluss, 21, of Nickelsville, Va. He was captured by the Chinese and died as a result of malnutrition in the spring of 1951 while a POW in North Phyongan Province, North Korea.

The remains of Army Pfc. George A. Porter, 21, of Philadelphia, were also recently-identified. He was among more than 100 men taken prisoner by the Chinese during what became known as the “Hoengsong Massacre.”

And then there’s Sgt. Willie D. Hill, 20, of Catawba, N.C., whose infantry division was encircled by Chinese forces in November 1950 resulting in heavy losses, including that of Hill.

William. George. Willie.

They were young men lost to war, in a very literal sense.

I have never lost a loved one to death by war. But I have lost a loved one to war. My father fought as an infantryman on the front lines during the Korean War. He was wounded on Heartbreak Ridge and decades later, in May of 2000, was awarded a Purple Heart. He returned to Minnesota a changed man, unable to bury the horrific memories of buddies blown apart before his eyes, of enemies he’d killed.

Today he would have been identified as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. But back then, upon his military discharge in 1953, my dad was simply expected to return to civilian life as if nothing had changed for him personally.

April 3 marks nine years since my dad died at the age of 72. I am convinced that he would have lived longer had any type of counseling been available to him upon his return  to the farm fields of southwestern Minnesota.

Yet, despite my wish that he could have gotten help, I am thankful that he came home. In one piece. Alive.

Thousands of other American families do not have the comfort that is mine—to visit a cemetery knowing their loved one is buried here, on American soil.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Reflecting at a veterans’ memorial November 12, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:10 PM
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Rice County Courthouse, Faribault

I DIDN’T ATTEND any Veterans Day ceremonies yesterday, and perhaps I should have. But several days earlier, I paid my own quiet tribute by walking the grounds of the Rice County courthouse where a veterans’ memorial expansion project is underway. For years a lone Civil War statue has stood there honoring those who served.

Today new sidewalks edged by honorary pavers lead to the memorial plaza which will eventually feature that Civil War statue, a torch, bronze eagle, dove, granite columns, flags, benches and gardens. I expect a place for quiet reflection, a place of honor, a place to cry.

Honorary pavers line sidewalks leading to the center of the Rice County veterans' memorial on the courthouse lawn in Faribault.

Veterans’ memorials often move me to tears because they always, always, bring thoughts of my dad, a Korean War veteran. I remember how, months after his 2003 death, my emotions overcame me while viewing the veterans’ memorial in Winona. With grief still gripping my soul, I simply wept.

Such strong emotions did not pervade my thoughts at the site of the new Rice County Veterans Memorial in Faribault. Yet, words and images triggered memories in a quiet, deeply personal way of honoring those who have served our country.

Three letters, KIA, imprinted upon a paver signify the ultimate sacrifice. Killed in action. I thought of my dad's soldier-buddy, Ray Scheibe, who was blown apart by an incoming shell on the day before he was to leave Korea. My dad never got over this loss and was forever haunted by the horrible image of Ray's death.

Even though I knew the trail of white in the sky came from an airliner, I imagined this to be the smoke of gunfire or of bombs or of shells as I took this image of the Civil War statue in Faribault.

I was coming of age during the Vietnam War. I remember the protests, the anger, the peace signs, all of it...

When I look at the MIA/POW flag, I recall the metal bracelet I wore in high school, the bracelet engraved with the name of a soldier held as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. Sadly, I don't remember his name or even know if I still have that bracelet tucked away somewhere in a cardboard box.

When I composed this image, the back of the Civil War statue, I thought about how a soldier must sometimes feel so alone, so vulnerable.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling