Time was running out for the three sons to fulfill their mother’s request. After decades of legwork, they had exhausted nearly all their options in order to get their father the war medals he’d been promised 71 years earlier.
“There was no more paperwork I could have submitted. I’d filled out as many forms as I could,” said Bob Hjermstad, who’s led the charge in pursuing Arnold Hjermstad’s Legion of Merit award for his service in WWII.
The eldest Hjermstad was nominated to receive the prestigious commendation in 1944, but because of bureaucratic errors and a mess of red tape it was never given to him. In October, Bob Hjermstad wrote to Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., asking for help.
“Every time we ran into roadblocks I’d say, ‘I don’t know, Dad, it seems like we’re grasping at straws and I don’t know which way to go,’ ” the son said. “It wasn’t until John Kline wrote a letter to the secretary of the Army that things really sped up.”
On Saturday, Armed Forces Day, Kline presented the Legion of Merit to 96-year-old Arnold Hjermstad during a military ceremony at the Twin Rivers Senior Center in Cannon Falls, Minn., where he lives. Surrounded by dozens of friends and loved ones, Hjermstad was finally granted the honor that he was too humble to fight for himself.
His decoration comes as a result of his service in the 36th Infantry Division, where he distinguished himself as a quartermaster during operations in Northern Africa, Italy and across Europe — including the Battle of Anzio.
Arnold innovated a method to ensure soldiers could continue sending letters home even when paper mail was unavailable. During the war, Victory Mail allowed servicemen to write letters for transfer to a thumbnail-sized microfilm, where messages would be printed back to paper after their arrival in the U.S.; but this form wasn’t always available while deployed in an active combat zone.
“In its absence, Arnold created a mimeograph form that allowed mail to be processed for delivery to loved ones at home,” Kline wrote to Army Secretary John McHugh, who ultimately approved Arnold’s Legion of Merit, along with four other service honors for his valor.
“It might not sound like much now, but when you’re out there in a foxhole in the mud getting shot at and you have a chance to write a letter home and can’t send it, [it was],” Bob Hjermstad said.
The French government also notified Arnold that he would receive the French Knight Legion of Honor — the highest distinction available to noncitizens.
Hjermstad initially reached out to Kline, because as a veteran himself, Hjermstad thought the congressman would understand the family’s frustrations. Kline said he was frequently annoyed with the tedious awards process during his 25-year stint in the Marine Corps.
“Things just get put in the wrong drawer. I guess it’s a whole list of human error exacerbated by a lot of turmoil and a very, very large bureaucracy,” Kline said of the Pentagon.
“When you have a chance to right a wrong, it’s one of the really good things about my job.”
Before Kline’s intervention, the Hjermstad family was close to giving up. But Arnold, now suffering from dementia, was able attend and understand the honor bestowed on him.
“All the work and all the time we spent on the phone, sending e-mails and mailing letters — for it to come to fruition now is just a joy,” the son said. “It’s over, finally.”