Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A preview of the Traveling Vietnam Memorial opening today in Faribault September 1, 2016

These electronic signs are stationed by the Rice County Highway Department building along Minnesota State Highway 3 across from the fairgrounds. They welcomed Vietnam veterans during Wednesday's processional.

These electronic signs are stationed by the Rice County Highway Department building along Minnesota State Highway 3 across from the fairgrounds. They welcomed Vietnam veterans during Wednesday’s processional into Faribault from Owatonna.

IN THE STILL OF THE EVENING, as the sun drenched the last day of August in golden light, a handful of volunteers wrapped up a long day. For a year they’d been planning for this date—the arrival of the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall in Faribault. Late Wednesday afternoon, the pick-up truck and trailer carrying memorial wall panels drove into this southeastern Minnesota city with an honorary escort of bikes, cars, military vehicles and more.

The back of the trailer carrying the wall.

The back of the trailer carrying the wall.

And now, as dusk descended, that trailer rested on a grassy expanse at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Thursday morning volunteers began erecting the 360-foot long by 8-foot high replica wall which officially opens this evening for public viewing at a 6:30 p.m ceremony. There’s a soft opening this afternoon. The wall will remain open 24/7 through the closing ceremony at 1 p.m. on Labor Day.

Signs await posting.

Signs await posting.

But before the crowds arrive—up to 20,000 are expected throughout the wall’s duration in Faribault—I got a preview of what visitors can expect. And what I saw touched me deeply. I can only imagine how the wall, still boxed in the trailer during my pre-unveiling perusal, will impact me.

A close-up of an image on the back of the wall trailer.

A close-up of an image on the back of the wall trailer reveals the number who served.

I could see the emotion in Douglas, a life-long Faribault resident and Vietnam vet I met Wednesday evening while at the fairgrounds. I thanked him for his service. He grew quiet when I mentioned the horrors of war he experienced. But his mood shifted when I talked to him about the earlier processional into town. He appreciated the long overdue public show of respect and welcome home.

Peter Van Sluis, along with his wife, Virginia, and veteran Kirk Mansfield, led efforts to bring the wall to Faribault.

Peter Van Sluis, along with his wife, Virginia, and veteran Kirk Mansfield, led efforts to bring the wall to Faribault.

Inside the information center tent, key organizer Peter Van Sluis bent over his laptop working on last-minute details. We chatted for awhile, Van Sluis pointing me toward the temporary lounge for veterans who likely will need a place to gather their thoughts, to grieve, to cope, to lean on one another.

Signage welcomes veterans only to the veterans' lounge.

Signage welcomes veterans to the veterans’ only lounge.

Locals brought in their personal furniture to furnish the lounge.

Locals brought in their personal furniture to furnish the lounge.

Inside I discovered couches and easy chairs circled into comfy coves, like a family living room. Members of the community pulled the furniture from their homes for the event.

Flags line a wall.

Flags line a wall.

A map posted in the veterans' lounge.

A map posted in the veterans’ lounge.

One of many photos displayed.

One of many Vietnam War photos displayed.

Signs of support, flags, even a map of Vietnam, transform this space from fairgrounds beer garden to veterans’ lounge. In an adjoining room, photos from the Vietnam War are staged on tables and along walls.

 

Vietnam wall preview, #19 Langhorst cross

 

Vietnam wall preview, #18 stacked crosses

 

Vietnam wall preview, #21 two soldiers' crosses

 

Outside, a cluster of white crosses drew me to view images of soldiers, all Minnesotans who have died in wars since 9/11. I imagined the grief of PFC Moises A Langhorst’s family as I studied the freckled face of this 19-year-old killed in Iraq in 2004.

Visitors can view items, like this jeep, part of a military exhibit.

Visitors can view items, like this jeep, part of a military exhibit.

Several military tents have been set up at the fairgrounds.

Several military tents have been set up at the fairgrounds.

A separate field of crosses will honor those from a several county area who died in Vietnam. Such a display personalizes war. And for many of those who visit the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall and the accompanying displays, including items from a military museum, the impact will feel deeply personal.

Used during the Vietnam War, this 1968 boat is pocked with bullet holes. A viewing stairway will give visitors access to an interior view.

Used during the Vietnam War, this 1968 boat is pocked with bullet holes. A viewing stairway will allow visitors to see the interior.

I noticed this sticker on the end of the boat.

I noticed this sticker on the end of the boat.

I listened as a Vietnam vet, standing next to a military boat used in Vietnam, mentioned the expected arrival of another boat in which soldiers were blown apart. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I cringed inwardly, remembering similar stories shared by my combat soldier father. None of this is easy.

The area set aside for protesters on the northwest side of the fairgrounds.

The area set aside for protesters, and posted as such, on the northwest side of the fairgrounds.

Organizer Van Sluis expects some veterans to struggle. And he also expects protesters of the Vietnam War. A special area has been set aside for them. I’d never thought of that possibility. And, as I considered likely protests, I thought, yes, this too is part of living in a free country.

The front of the wall trailer delivers a message of honor and respect.

The front of the wall trailer delivers a message of honor and respect.

It is because of the sacrifices of our military men and women that we are free, and remain free.

FYI: Click here to see a full schedule of events, for directions to the Rice County Fairgrounds and more.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Faribault, bikers and vets honor our Armed Forces May 20, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 12:27 PM
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Veterans and bikers commemorate Armed Forces Day at the Rice County Veterans Memorial in Faribault.

ON MAY 20, 1950, our country celebrated the first Armed Forces Day in a big way with parades in Washington, D.C., New York and Berlin and with air shows, open houses and receptions.

Sixty-two years later, in my community of Faribault, veterans and a group of Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders gathered Saturday, on Armed Forces Day, to honor those who have served or are serving in the military.

The Color Guard stands ready as the bikers arrive.

I am almost ashamed to admit this—especially as the daughter of a Korean War veteran—but I was unaware of an annual Armed Forces Day on the third Saturday in May or of Armed Forces Week, which ends today.

That was until yesterday, when I spoke with several veterans as we waited for the bikers to arrive at the Rice County Veterans Memorial at the county courthouse.

Bikers participating in the Faribault Harley-Davidson Harley’s Heroes raised $2,800 on Saturday for the Disabled American Veterans. In 2011, the Faribault dealership raised about $2,200 and earned status on the Harley’s Heroes Honor Roll as one of the top six fundraising dealers in the country. Thirty percent of Harley customers are active or retired military vets, according to the H-D website.

Around 4 p.m. the bikers, who were participating in the annual Harley’s Heroes nation-wide event to raise monies for the non-profit Disabled American Veterans, rumbled across Fourth Street, circled the courthouse and pulled into the west parking lot, American flags waving from the backs of their Harleys.

The bikers and the vets, my husband and I, and a photographer paid our respects in a short ceremony that included a gun salute, playing of the taps and a brief explanation of the vets memorial.

I am almost ashamed to tell you this, but no one else in my community paused or pulled off the street or took a break from their work or activities or fun to commemorate Armed Forces Day by attending this short ceremony.

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders were among those in attendance.

Said General Omar N. Bradley, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on that first Armed Forces Day celebration in 1950:

The heritage of freedom must be guarded as carefully in peace as it was in war.

We would all do well to remember that, especially each year on the third Saturday of May.

I spotted this bumper sticker on the vehicle of a Vietnam veteran who had come to the ceremony.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering my soldier-father and Elizabeth Taylor March 24, 2011

WHEN I HEARD the news on Wednesday of Elizabeth Taylor’s death, I didn’t think of the Hollywood star or the two-time Oscar winner, the stunning beauty with the violet eyes or the woman who married eight times, or even the starlet who struggled with addiction and was a crusader in the fight against AIDS.

Rather, I thought of my dad.

He was smitten with Liz.

He never met the Hollywood actress. But he had seen her on a United Service Organizations stage while serving during the Korean Conflict. That was enough for my Minnesota farmer turned-soldier dad to fall for her. Hard. I don’t recall him ever, in his life-time, talking about another actress. He had eyes only for Elizabeth.

His wasn’t an obsession. Nothing like that. It’s just that he seldom talked about his time on the front lines as a foot solider during the Korean War. He told us about the orphans begging for food across barbed wire fences, the sniper (he eventually killed) picking off members of his platoon, watching his buddy blown up the day before he was to return home to the States, the cold and lack of food, the digging into foxholes for protection…and then Elizabeth Taylor, dear, dear Liz.

I expect that the movie star offered a welcome and pleasant diversion for soldiers who faced death on a daily basis.

My father, Elvern Kletscher, on the left with two of his soldier buddies in Korea.

If my dad was still alive—he died eight years ago at the age of 72—I would ask him about the woman who enamored him with her beauty when she stepped onto Korean soil to entertain the troops. I don’t know details about her USO appearance. I wish I had cared enough to ask him.

I tried to find more information online, but Taylor’s USO tours don’t exactly pop up all over the Internet. She once received the USO Woman of the Year Award and won a USO Merit Award. Otherwise I didn’t find much out there.

And that is dismaying to me. Her time entertaining our servicemen, soldiers like my dad, seems as notable as her roles in Cleopatra or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

For me, Elizabeth Taylor will always be more than just another actress. She will be a reminder of my father, of the young Minnesota soldier who was struck by shrapnel at Heartbreak Ridge in Korea and was awarded the Purple Heart 47 years later. It is his memories of Liz that define her to me, not her beauty, not her accolades, not her anything except the temporary escape she gave my soldier-father nearly 60 years ago from the battlefields of Korea, from the horrors of war.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling