As cheers rang out, hundreds of Vietnam War veterans marched down Dan Patch Avenue at the Minnesota State Fair on Tuesday, part of a national salute to those who served in the unpopular war half a century ago.
Despite the steamy heat, the streets were lined with smiling fairgoers, young and old, waving flags to honor the aging warriors.
“A lot of us had tears in our eyes,” said combat veteran Dave Youngquist, of North Oaks. “I had tears in my eyes the whole six blocks, because we were never given that welcome home.”
Youngquist, 69, was a U.S. Army captain in an armored personnel carrier unit serving in the Iron Triangle north of Saigon. His military shirt displayed numerous honors, including a Purple Heart for shrapnel wounds and a Bronze Star for combat duty.
“To be with my brothers in arms with common service experience and being in Vietnam together is a bond of brothers,” Youngquist said. “Everybody asked: ‘Where were you [in Vietnam]? Welcome home. Are you doing OK?’ It was a form of peer-to-peer therapy.”
Air Force veteran Norman Teigen, 71, of Hopkins, said of the parade: “It means a lot to have such an overwhelming display of emotion and thanks.”
The parade, one of several service-oriented events on the fair’s Military Appreciation Day, ended near the grandstand ramp at a pavilion where a veteran-led rock band, a general and a governor greeted and commended the vets.
“In the Vietnam War, you served for a nation that did not appreciate you,” said Major Gen. Rick Nash, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard.
Gov. Mark Dayton expressed “our appreciation for your heroic and dedicated service.” He noted that 55,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War, including more than 1,000 Minnesotans.
“Every one of you who served are heroes. You are American heroes,” he said.
Not far behind the pavilion was an alley of colorful booths that offered veterans assistance, including Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, a U.S. Veterans Affairs Department mobile health center and job-search assistance. Also present were displays of military equipment and recruiters from all branches of the armed forces.
Among the veterans listening to speakers and music were a former Air Force assistant chaplain from Hopkins, a Marine from Coon Rapids, a helicopter crew chief who rescued downed pilots and an Air Force jet ammunition provider who shipped the napalm powder used in bombs.
The jet ammo supplier, Fred Kea, 65, hasn’t forgotten how protesters spit on him when he returned from Vietnam to the Los Angeles airport.
“They thought we were bad for going over there. What we accomplished, I don’t know,” said Kea, of Sanborn, Minn. “I did what my country asked me to do.”
Kea said he lost much of his hearing while servicing jets at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base. About 20 years later, he developed diabetes, one of the diseases sometimes attributed to exposure to Agent Orange, which he saw sprayed to clear jungle vegetation.
Gary Grebowski, 67, of Coon Rapids, said when his Marine unit flew home, “we were told not to wear our uniforms because there probably would be trouble.”
After walking in the fair parade, he said: “I couldn’t see any better way to show Vietnam veterans we care.”
Even the weather evoked emotions. Youngquist said that as they walked, another veteran said the intense heat was “just like Vietnam.”