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A veterans program to honor all veterans will be held at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Century School. Century School students along with the Park Rapids Honor Guard and members of the Park Rapids American Legion will present the program. The public is welcome. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

Veterans feel privileged to have served

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Veterans feel privileged to have served
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

All gave some.

Some gave all.

The inscription at the All Veterans Memorial is a succinct reminder of soldiers' sacrifice.


Thursday, the nation will honor military veterans. Approximately 12 percent of Hubbard County residents, slightly above the national average, have served in the Armed Forces.

"It's a privilege to serve," said Dave Free, Vietnam vet and Commandant of the Marine Corps League in Park Rapids. "Veterans are an elite minority."

Free joined the Marine Corps at 18, "a very impressionable time of life. The memories are vivid."

At 19, he headed to Vietnam where he would serve just shy of a year in the Northern I Corps, 3rd Battalion, First Marines.

He recalls landing in Da Nang, immediately struck by "the smell, the heat, the humidity."

The crewmembers waiting to board the aircraft to go home "were 19 going on 60," he said of the gaunt, somber soldiers. "They shook their heads," he remembered of their "you don't know what you're getting into" expressions.

"We could legally kill, but we couldn't legally drink," Free pointed out.

"Veterans give up a period of their life," he said of his excursion from Park Rapids as a student to his "highly charged" military role in Vietnam.

"There are no politics in war at the soldier level," he said. He would develop lifelong friendships. "We share a bond. There is nothing like the bond created there."

The Vietnam veteran does not divulge details of his time spent in Vietnam. "Reunions are good - and bad... Someone will say something," memories are stirred and there is silence for a few moments.

"At this stage of my life, it's something I'm very proud of," he said.

But that was not his initial sentiment after returning from the Cold War military conflict.

For the first time in U.S. history, soldiers returning from battle were ignored - or abhorred - by the civilian populace.

"When we first got out, it wasn't something we talked about," he said. "There was a stereotype... I didn't put it (time spent in the military) on my résumé.

"The real heroes are the World War II guys," he said of soldiers serving two, three or more years in combat.

Now, he considers his role as a member of the Honor Guard, to pay last respects for veterans, a privilege.

"We are a small group, who carry the load for the nation," he said of military veterans.

Service is a way of life

American Legion Commander and Army veteran Gary Schwartz also takes pride in his role as a former member of the Armed Forces, and his continuation of service to the community.

"The country recognizes the freedoms we fought for," he said. "And I'm enjoying one of those freedoms," said Schwartz, who was bow hunting near Lake George last week.

Schwartz served in the Army from 1963 to '65, stationed in Germany.

"It made a big difference in my life," he said of maturity - and girth and height. "I grew four inches and gained 30 pounds."

While "seeing the world," the soldier, whose role was in communication, gained a sense of responsibility and learned teamwork.

After leaving the military, he acquired an appreciation for veterans' role on the home front.

"I came home to serve in the community," he said of the range of organizations benefiting from the American Legion's benevolence - from Boy Scouts to senior citizens, scholarships to school sports.

Quality of life compromised

"Veterans sacrificed, and were prepared to sacrifice," said Greg Remus, Hubbard County's veterans' service officer.

Remus, who was in active duty in the Army for 22 years, serving in Europe and all over the U.S., said he was prompted to become an advocate for veterans after learning of the complex claims process.

Remus takes pride when the "light bulb goes on," veterans learning of benefit entitlement.

Vietnam veterans, Remus points out, were exposed to Agent Orange, which can lead to respiratory cancer, prostate cancer and heart disease.

"The sacrifice of going to Vietnam affected quality of life because of that disease.

"Now we're seeing Gulf War syndrome," he said of veterans with undiagnosed illnesses, including headaches, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic pain. The numerous inoculations and exposure to exotic insects and radiation are the suspected sources, he said.

"Every generation has problems," Remus said of service related health impacts, including cold weather injuries sustained by soldiers in World War II and Korea.

He hopes to establish a veterans' center in the area to provide counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder.

His advice this Veterans Day: "Thank a veteran. Everyone knows a veteran.

"The Midwest has more veterans per capita than the rest of the country. And Native Americans have the highest propensity to enlist.

"Veterans sacrificed to preserve our freedom," he said.

Jean Ruzicka
(218) 732-3364