A more dramatic day there never was for Diane Finnemann.
Her oldest daughter was in labor, giving birth for the first time. Meanwhile, at the state capitol, Gov. Tim Pawlenty was about to sign a bill that Finnemann had worked for, declaring March 29 "Vietnam Veterans Day" in Minnesota.
"Skipper would be proud," Finnemann thought. That would be Wallace R. (Skip) Schmidt, Finnemann's late brother who served in Vietnam and whose memory inspired her nine months of labor to get the law passed. With Thursday's signing, Minnesota joins five other states -- Tennessee, New York, Mississippi, Georgia and New Mexico -- in declaring March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day.
Twenty-six other states are in the process of doing the same, said Minnesota Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, chief author of the bill. On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. troops left South Vietnam.
The special vets day is a way to honor Schmidt and other Vietnam vets who returned to a country torn apart and hostile toward servicemen. "It's a tribute to him," Howes said. There were others who pushed to get the law passed, but the most important, Howes said, were Finnemann and her family.
"It means vindication of our sacrifice," said Jerry Kyser, a Vietnam War veteran and past Minnesota president of Vietnam Veterans of America. "It means you served your country, we appreciate that. You can hate war, but you just can't hate the warrior."
Schmidt died in 1972, four years after returning from Vietnam.
Finnemann and her brother, Skip, were born just one year and one day apart. They were bunkmates as children. And when they grew up, Diane and her husband lived in Southern California near the San Diego base where Skip was in boot camp for the Marines. Their bond grew tighter during their time together in California, she said.
"We knew he was going [to Vietnam]. All you could do was pray to God that he would come back," she said. He was a private first class grunt, she said.
During the Battle of Dai Do, Schmidt was shot in the right hand. He and his unit had been ambushed. He heard an explosion. He doesn't remember what happened next. But when they pulled him out, his body was full of shrapnel and three of his fingers were badly injured.
Struggle to recover
As a result, he lost the use of them and could only use his right forefinger and thumb. His tour lasted from December 1967 until May 1968.
A telegram arrived at Finnemann's house. Her brother was at the Great Lakes Hospital, it said, and his wounds were not life-threatening. He would be in contact soon.
Recalling the reunion, Finnemann chokes back tears.
"I remember walking in the door and handing my baby off to my mom and just running into his arms," she said. "He was back and he was alive."
Initially, he was proud of his service. But it didn't last.
He hadn't been officially discharged yet, Finnemann said, so he was supposed to wear his uniform. "When he hit the streets in his uniform, he was ridiculed. He was called a baby killer. It took all of his pride." After just a week, he stopped wearing it, she said.
Finnemann said that her brother, like many other Vietnam War vets, isolated themselves from the general public so they wouldn't have to deal with the hostility.
At night he couldn't sleep. He'd wake up screaming. At his family's urging, he went to the VA Hospital. They called it a personality disorder, Finnemann recalled. At the time, they didn't know about post-traumatic stress disorder.
He had a couple jobs but they didn't last.
Then his mother got him a job mowing the golf course at the Edina Country Club and he was doing better, Finnemann said. He met a girl and fell in love. But the nightmares were getting worse. He became very jealous and possessive.
Finally he went to the VA Hospital and told them he needed help controlling his anger and getting along with people.
Things weren't getting any better and one day he stopped going to the VA Hospital, Finnemann said. He took a bunch of sleeping pills. His girlfriend called the family, Finnemann said, and told them that Schmidt needed medical help.
The family took him back to the VA Hospital and told them about the suicide attempt. They asked them to bring Schmidt back in a few days when they had an opening, Finnemann said. But before the appointment, he killed himself.
After his death, Schmidt was awarded a Silver Star for his role in another battle, and he'd earlier received a Purple Heart.
Finnemann said she believes the trauma her brother experienced both from the war and from the condemnation he and many Vietnam Vets faced when they came home played a major role in his death. "Skipper's body came home from the war, but his mind didn't," she said.
Last summer, she received a forwarded e-mail from a Vietnam veteran in Tennessee who successfully lobbied for a day to remember Vietnam veterans.
She immediately went to work to do the same in Minnesota, starting at the city level and working her way up to secure county support.
She then contacted Howes, an old family friend, for his help at the Legislature.
Howes said he supported the idea of having a special day dedicated to honoring Vietnam veterans because their situation was different than returning vets of other wars.
"It was a very tumultuous time in our history in our country," he said. "We've had many wars that were stressful and a lot of people died, but [in which] everyone who came home, they were all [treated like] heroes."
A community celebration to recognize Vietnam Veterans Day will be held Saturday at the Forest Lake library.
Allie Shah • 651-298-1550