Breaking the walls of war
OSAKIS, Minn. — While visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Kenneth Johnson of Osakis had one thing on his mind: finding the name of a young man he'd served with in 1969 — a young man who was killed in action.
"I wanted to see one name in particular," Johnson said. "He and I had one thing in common: We both extended and went back over (to Vietnam) a second time. And that's when he was killed."
Johnson visited the memorial with three other men he'd served with, who'd also been his bunk mates in Vietnam. The trip to D.C. the first week of June was orchestrated by Johnson's wife, Linda, who contacted George Leffler, Duran Barnes and Frank Keller and invited them along.
"It was a chore to find them (the other men), but I was able to locate them," she said.
Though the families visited other landmarks in D.C., the memorial wall stood apart. Leffler designed shirts for the men to wear to identify them as veterans.
"I wanted the shirts to tell the story," he said. "I wanted to tell who we were with, what unit, what batallion, those kind of things. It did exactly that. At the wall, it was awesome that so many of the other veterans stopped us and talked to us."
The other veterans shared when they served and some of their experiences.
"I know one fellow I talked to, he said he felt kind of responsible when one fellow was killed because of the events around it, Johnson said. "I said, 'Hey, you can't hold onto that. It wasn't your fault.'"
And it wasn't just veterans who stopped to talk to the men. Children from school trips peppered them with questions, and a man from China even paused to thank them.
"He relayed to us that his family actually fought against us," Johnson said. "But he wanted to have his picture taken with us. He was so grateful and he thanked us."
Though Leffler had been to D.C. before, he hadn't been able to visit the wall on his own. But with the other men there, he said it was manageable.
"I couldn't go to the wall the first time I was there," he said. "I made it to the statues, but I couldn't walk down the wall. There were just so many memories and things that I didn't want to bring back. But with the guys there, it made it so much easier."
The experience was also moving for the families of the four men. As a wife and family member of men who served in Vietnam, Linda said the matter of veteran support is near and dear to her.
"Whatever it takes, we owe our veterans our support forever," she said. "Whatever it takes to stop veteran suicide, to support their families, to support their wives who sent them off to serve and got back these confused and wounded young men. We owe it to them to do whatever it takes to see to it that they can come home not like the guys from Vietnam, but come home to health and love."
After the success of the trip, the four men plan to continue to try and get together in the coming years.
"No matter how much time passes or how many miles there are between us, this brotherhood that we have is inseparable," Leffler said. "I'm very close to my brothers, but nothing like I am to these guys."
Though his time in Vietnam impacted him, Johnson said that overall he is grateful he came out of war the way he did.
"Some guys experienced hell over there," Johnson said. "I consider myself grateful. I'm here, I'm alive, I'm working, I'm healthy."