Serving as honor guards at funerals, a group of Anoka County Vietnam veterans pay tribute to fellow vets while staying connected.
Members of the Anoka County Vietnam Veterans of America Honor Guard fired off three rifle volleys in honor of recently deceased Navy World War II veteran James E. Reis at the Fort Snelling National Cemetery. The group presents the colors at an average of 200 funerals a year throughout the area.
Mike Clark doesn't need reminders that he served in the Vietnam War. He walks with a limp, shrapnel from a grenade having ravaged his left Achilles' tendon.
But when Clark, 65, founded the Anoka County Chapter 470 Vietnam Veterans of America Honor Guard 14 years ago, he did so not only to pay final respects to fellow veterans. He did it, in part, to reconnect with veterans who could share war stories that only they could understand.
"We get thanks for doing the services, but I get more out of a funeral than I put into it," Clark said recently from his home in Anoka, where he was joined by three other members of this honor guard, which presents the colors at an average of 200 funerals per year.
"There's a sense of connectedness," said Dick Bergling, 65, of Anoka. Clark said. "What some of us have been through would be hard to explain to anyone else. We don't necessarily share war stories. We're just trying to get through life."
But they all have their stories.
"I'd go nuts if I didn't do this," Joe Aragon, 75, said of the honor guard he helped found.
Aragon, of Anoka, was an Army crew chief mechanic who served two tours in Vietnam (in 1964 and again from 1965 through 1967) "because I didn't think the first tour was exciting enough."
But he knows there's nothing funny about war. His brother was killed in Vietnam.
"When I lost my brother, my first thought was, 'Why not me?'" Aragon said.
Feeling the heat
John Novack, 72, of Coon Rapids, enlisted in the Marines in 1957 and was stationed in Hawaii, where he became a machine-gun expert. He was sent to Lebanon, then to Cuba. And in 1965 he went to Vietnam for nine months.
"I was itching for a fight," he recalled.
He returned from Vietnam with three purple hearts.
He says he was shot in the head, hit in the right leg by rocket shrapnel and hit in the arm by rocket fragments.
Dick Bergling, 65, of Anoka, went to Navy boot camp one week after graduating from high school. He remembers leaving home on Thanksgiving Day in 1967.
"Twenty-two hours later I stepped out to the 120-degree heat of Saigon," he recalled.
Much of the next 14 months were spent along the Mekong River.
"I was never wounded, but I came close several times," he said. "I came home with a heavy sense of guilt."
No longer. Clark has a pile of thank-you letters from the families of veterans and from fellow vets for the salutes the honor guard offers.
Last year, the Anoka County veterans group presided over 214 veterans' funerals. One year, they did 250, Clark said. The Anoka group has done funerals throughout the Twin Cities area and beyond -- from Cambridge to Lakeville, from Litchfield to Hudson, Wis.
"You could ask everybody for reasons why we do the honor guard," said Clark, a retired teacher, "and each of the guys might have a different answer."
The first funeral they attended was for Bergling's father. Novack said he became involved at the request of a veteran who was dying.
Aragon says that, in addition to having a son who is an Air Force major, it's a way of staying connected with the military.
"It's a tradition, one we hope the younger veterans will pick up," Clark said.
He talked about the injury to his Achilles' tendon and how he can feel the pain all the way up to his hips. But war stories no longer dominate the conversation when this bunch gets together.
"We're at peace with ourselves, I think," Clark said.
"Not everyone who comes to the honor guard stays," Clark said. "They've got to fit in. But for those of us who have, there's nothing more meaningful."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419