War heroes celebrated at flag raising
They were scared, skinny kids on foreign soil, hunkered down in trenches, bunkers and hastily-made shelters, dreading the sound of incoming enemy fire.
They went to war as volunteers expected to join up, and as draftees who had little choice.
Saturday, the now grown men and women gathered on a rural Ponsford hillside to remember those left behind and honor the flags they fought for. They celebrated each other as heroes, survivors and the lucky.
Howard Maninga built a memorial to Vietnam soldiers on his yard overlooking lush fields, replicating the deck of a ship. He held the fifth annual flag raising and retiring ceremony, attended by nearly 200 fellow soldiers and families.
Maninga, a marine, saw the worst of the Vietnam War. He fought in the battle of Hue during the Tet Offensive, considered the turning point in the war. Thousands died during the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese occupation of Hue; graves of the massacred and tortured were found in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Maninga, a quiet, dignified man, said he built his memorial and holds the annual ceremony to promote healing, and let it serve as an educational process for future generations.
Each year he and fellow servicemen and women retire the flags of each military branch, the POW and American flags, ceremoniously burn them and hoist new flags that will fly all year.
Saturday, for the first time, they added a seventh flag, for members of the U.S. Coast Guard.
"Poor is the community that has no heroes," read Maninga's wife, Trudy, quoting from a small-town plaque she had seen. "Poorer still is the community that has heroes but does not remember them."
An honor guard provided a 21-gun salute once the flags were burned.
The symbolic afternoon included music and a poem composed by Howard and Trudy's daughter, Kalyn Larson, called "The Stranger." It's about a disabled Vietnam vet in his wheelchair, ignored and forgotten by those he fought for after he returned from the war.
On the lawn, a pair of combat boots, a rifle and helmet stood to symbolize the soldiers left behind or missing in action.
A vacant table, draped with a white tablecloth and holding a single rose and a lemon slice on a plate, symbolized the life of the missing soldier who may never enjoy a meal at that table. The red rose stands for the determination of trying to locate the missing; the lemon symbolizes the bitterness of those captured and missing.
Dewane Morgan of Park Rapids was one of the lucky. A former Marine, he was part of a squadron dubbed "the walking dead" by Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary, leader and figurehead.
"We sustained the highest number of casualties of any battalion in Marine Corps history," Morgan recalled. "When those mortars came in, we were scared."
Morgan and others erected a sandbag bunker that replicated their shelter in Vietnam.
Veterans from several conflicts, not just the Vietnam War, mixed and mingled. Most set aside war memories for the afternoon, instead enjoying each other's company, a beautiful setting and sunshine.
It seemed fitting that children born in freedom romped on the grounds, their laughter every bit as symbolic as the salutes to the flags the kids played underneath.
Many of the attendees, in tears, thanked the soldiers for their service.
"People asked me why we built this bunker with such narrow openings," Morgan said. "We were just young skinny kids."