By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — The theme for the day was “Welcome Home” and “Thank you for your service.”
Another theme for the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Tom Prince Memorial Park in Colfax on August 30 was, “It is never too late to right a wrong.”
In February of 1983, the Colfax Village Board dedicated the new ball park to the veterans of the Vietnam war.
For whatever reason, a memorial was never placed at what is now named Tom Prince Memorial Park.
Although the weather had been hot and humid with thunderstorms for several days before the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the weather was hot and humid and rainy for several days after the dedication, on August 30, the weather was perfect with low humidity, temperatures in the low 70s, bright sunshine and puffy white clouds.
Dignitaries who spoke at the dedication ceremony included state Representative Rob Summerfield (67th Assembly District); state Senator Terry Moulton (23rd Senate District); and Jake Leinenkugel, former Senior White House Advisor to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and currently leading the VA’s commission on Creating Options for Veterans’ Expedited Recovery (COVER) to examine an evidence-based therapy model for treating mental health conditions.
William C. Yingst Jr., district administrator for the Colfax school district, a veteran of Afghanistan, and a retired Command Sergeant Major with the United States Army and coordinator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication, also was a speaker.
More than 60 Vietnam war and Vietnam era veterans and their family members, as well several hundred students from the Colfax school district along with perhaps three hundred members of the public attended the dedication.
The Mike Voth Memorial Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter Five Color Guard posted the colors.
The Rev. Dr. Leslie Walck, pastor at Colfax Lutheran, gave the invocation.
Part of Pastor Walck’s invocation focused on prayers for healing for the Vietnam veterans.
The Colfax High School band played the National Anthem, “Armed Forces Salute,” and “America on Parade.”
American Legion Post 131 Russell-Toycen performed military honors, and the Vietnam era veterans in Russell-Toycen Post 131 uncovered the sign and the granite memorial: Tom Dunbar, Dick Larson, Jon Scott, and Happy (Julien) Silva.
The stone is inscribed with the years 1961 to 1975, the image of a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter (the “Hueys” used in Vietnam), the five insignia of the five branches of the military, and the inscription, “Dedicated to our Vietnam Veterans. In honored memory of all who served and gave the full measure of devotion to their nation in the Vietnam War.”
Colfax High School band members Tate Russell and Tanner Nierenhausen played “Taps” at the end of the dedication ceremony.
As Silva noted in an interview with WEAU television, Vietnam veterans were spit upon at the airports when they arrived back in the United States all those years ago.
Rep. Summerfield’s remarks focused on gratitude.
“It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here. Today is for the brave men and women who served in our armed forces during the Vietnam war. Back then, they did not get the proper welcome home and thank you that they deserved. Looking around today in Colfax, I am happy to see things have changed. Our Vietnam veterans are now finally being honored for their service to the nation,” Rep. Summerfield said.
“I sincerely cannot express my gratitude enough. Gratitude has brought many of us here today to the memorial dedication. Gratitude for the time, dedication and service that our Vietnam veterans and their families have given our nation so that we are secure,” he said.
“We are truly blessed to live in the freest, (most secure) and strongest country in the world, the United States of America. The land of opportunity. However, this would not be possible without the men and women in uniform who have served our nation overseas. I am humbled to be in the presence of so many American heroes. Your selfless acts provide us with the ability to seek our own American dream,” Rep. Summerfield said.
“I am grateful to be with you all today in celebration … Let us remember, not just today, but every day, our Vietnam veterans who gave so much so that we may enjoy all the freedoms of this great nation,” he said.
“Thank you for all your service to our state and nation, and welcome home,” Representative Summerfield said.
Senator Moulton spoke about a recent conversation he’d had with a Vietnam veteran.
“It is very encouraging to see such a large crowd here. I did not serve in the military, but many of my classmates did serve in the Vietnam conflict. I remember well when they came home and they were not welcomed properly the way they should have been,” Senator Moulton said.
Recently, a Vietnam veteran, wearing a Vietnam veteran cap, had visited Senator Moulton’s business.
Senator Moulton said he had thanked the veteran for his service.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You know, I’d do it all over again. I even tried to serve in the Gulf War, but they turned me down because I was too old.’ After he left my store, I had two thoughts. First of all, what a patriot he was and what a soldier he would be, willing to sacrifice and go into another conflict,” Senator Moulton said.
“The other thing I thought of was he was not welcomed home properly when he did come back. That’s a shame for a patriot and soldier and all of you veterans in that conflict … I would encourage all of us to keep them in your prayers. Some of the Vietnam veterans still struggle with things from that conflict. They have PTSD and other emotional problems. God bless you all. And thank you for your service,” he said.
Jake Leinenkugel, the fifth generation of the family to lead the Leinenkugel Brewing Company, served in the United States Marine Corps, like his father, brother and sons, and left the Marine Corps as a captain in 1982.
Leinenkugel spoke about the Veterans Administration and the need for improvement in health care, mental health care and benefits for veterans.
He also spoke about an initiative to change the 70,000 employees at the VA from two-thirds civilians to two-thirds veterans, which he expects to be completed in the next eight to 10 years.
But the heart of Leinenkugel’s remarks focused on the Vietnam veterans.
“This dedication is for a forgotten group of men and women who served in a very difficult decade. Hard to believe that it’s been over fifty years since the Tet Offensive. That’s a half a century ago. And here we are, doing what Bill Yingst, the American Legion, and many other veterans in this little community in Wisconsin (worked toward) is to dedicate a memorial to you, who when called, served,” he said.
“You served with pride and with dignity in each and every branch you were with. So from all of us civilians and all of the veterans, to you, Vietnam veterans, please rise and thank you all so much. This is for all of you. For a job well done. From your country and from all of us. It’s men like him — Bill Yingst — who take an idea and get it done,” Leinenkugel said.
Leinenkugel also drew some laughter from the crowd.
“After working in D.C. for the last 19 months, to finally come back, as of July 1, I never would have thought I’d say one thing: I’m back amongst normal people.”
Righting a wrong
From the very beginning of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial project, Yingst said he was hoping to make a start on righting a wrong.
“Today we are here to right some of the wrongs from the past. This is fifty-plus years overdue. As I saw in a few newspaper articles, it is never too late to right a wrong. And I firmly believe that. Today we salute, welcome home and say thank you to our Vietnam veterans and our Vietnam era veterans, who have never been recognized for their service to our country,” Yingst said, asking for a moment of silence for those Vietnam veterans who have already passed away.
“The history today, in 1983, Mike Hanson, the village board president, proposed a resolution to the village board who approved the dedication of the village ball field, right here, to recognize the Vietnam veterans due to the inhospitable treatment you received after serving your country and upon returning home. A sign or memorial was never placed at this site,” he said.
“So, LeAnn Ralph, a reporter from the Colfax Messenger, was researching the archives for the ‘Out of the Past’ weekly column and discovered this seemingly lost information. LeAnn then contacted me, and the wheels were set in motion,” Yingst said.
“We started with a plan and a vision and no money. After some brainstorming, this date was set, and a plan to tell the story and then try to garner support from the people of Colfax and the surrounding area. We started to tell the story at the Colfax Free Fair this summer in June. And support was immediate,” he said.
Jamie Buchholtz, technology education teacher at Colfax High School, used the school district’s brand new CNC plasma table to design and cut the sign out of steel donated by Steel Towne.
The aluminum between the two signs so the letters, “Dedicated to Our Vietnam Veterans,” show up from both sides, was donated by Tainter Machine.
The sign posts were designed and donated by Timber Technologies in Colfax.
Powder Plus out of Chippewa Falls donated the powder coating for the sign.
Rich Meredith, art teacher at Colfax High School, designed the “Welcome Home” and “Thank you for your service” signs.
“Ashley, Jan, Peggy, Patty, Terry Knutson and our cook staff, and my two Chads, Chad Johnson and Chad Sikora, assisted with the installation of the sign and many behind-the-scenes projects to get the sign powder coated and completed. Todd Higbie drilled the holes for the sign and provided the stage for today,” Yingst said.
“Today, we recognize our Vietnam veterans. We chose the black granite stone, a black sign to memorialize our Vietnam veterans to parallel the memorial in Washington D.C., which also is constructed of black granite. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. is called the ‘wall that heals.’ It is my hope that the sign and the black granite stone that we placed on this ground may be a place to help some of you start to heal,” Yingst continued.
“As of May 2017, there are 58,318 names of soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam war inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. There are the names of eight women on the wall as well, seven from the U.S. Army and one from the U.S. Air Force. There are 160 Medal of Honor recipients on the wall. Also there are 16 clergy members listed on the wall — seven Catholic, seven Protestant and two Jewish,” he said.
“We know the troops returned home during the course of the Vietnam war individually. There were many people who didn’t have an opportunity to let you know how they felt and how to welcome you home,” Yingst said.
“As only combat veterans would know, while serving in a far-away land, you do what you do for your buddy on your right and your buddy on your left. It isn’t Hollywood. And it isn’t glamorous. It is dirty. It smells bad. And it is tough living. Vietnam veterans — you did what your country asked you to do. You didn’t ask to be treated unfairly and you didn’t ask to be put in the tough situations you were in,” he said.
“Although long overdue, it is my distinct honor today to welcome you home. And to officially say, ‘thank you for your service and what you’ve done for our country.’ You are all patriots. It was wrong for U.S. citizens to attack you and pass judgement on you. Be proud of your service in Vietnam. Because we are all proud of you. This is the time for celebration and a time for healing. And we want each of you to know how much we care about you,” Yingst said.
“As modern-day veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq and the Gulf War, we want you to know we have not forgotten your sacrifices from fifty-plus years ago. When you came home, there weren’t parades, there weren’t bands. There were no banners or thank yous. Today, again, long overdue, my students and my favorite band and everyone here today hope to begin to correct some of those wrongs,” he said.
“President Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘A man who is good enough to shed his blood for the country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.’ We hope we are trying to correct this and offer a square deal well after the fact,” Yingst said.
“Our efforts here today will not cure all of the pain you have endured, but we hope it is a good starting point. Ladies and gentlemen, join me in thanking these veterans for their service in Vietnam with a round of applause,” he said, and also asked for a second moment of silence for the prisoners of war and those missing in action.
The final portion of the dedication ceremony was a UH-1 Iroquois helicopter from New Richmond that landed on the ball field.
As the helicopter flew over, Yingst noted the sound of the Huey “is the sound of freedom. The sound of the Huey, otherwise known as a Slick, they were used for everything. Taking you into battle. And maybe more importantly taking you out of battle. Enjoy the sound of freedom as it approaches. And thank you for your service. And welcome home,” he concluded.
All of the Vietnam veterans were invited to sign a fiftieth anniversary flag provided by Dave Zien, former state senator and state representative and also a Vietnam veteran.
Students from Colfax Elementary handed out thank you cards they had made to the Vietnam veterans.
After the helicopter had landed — a restored model that flew in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 in the Air Cavalry — everyone was invited to a picnic lunch.
As Yingst noted several times during the planning stages of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Tom Prince Memorial Park, the school district’s involvement in the planning and the execution was a way for the school district to give back to a community that always offers enthusiastic support to the Colfax school district.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was made possible by donations from the community of time, money and materials.