It is likely to be a bittersweet day for the Beilke family on Saturday in Alexandria. They'll gather at the veterans clinic there for the official naming of the Max J. Beilke Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic.
After work by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Collin Peterson, President Obama signed legislation renaming the clinic in May. While the clinic has been open for a year, family and friends will gather there Saturday with Veterans Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki, a personal friend of Beilke's, to celebrate the naming of the clinic.
In one of the ironies of the war on terror, Beilke, who grew up and graduated from high school in the Alexandria area, was listed as the last U.S. combat soldier to leave Vietnam and among the first to be declared missing at the start of a new war. While some Marines stayed behind to protect the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Beilke's departure was captured on television in March 1973, showing him boarding a C-130 transport for home. Beilke, a retired Army master sergeant, was in a meeting in the Pentagon working on veteran and family issues when the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 hit the building in 2001.
"This was a person who had put in his time in the military and didn't have to be at the Pentagon that day," Klobuchar said. "There couldn't be a more fitting tribute for a man who gave more than most."
A cousin, Ray Beilke, grew up with Max and both entered the military at the same time during the Korean War. Ray Beilke returned to farming after putting in four years in the Air Force, but Max Beilke became a career military man.
While the annotated version of Max Beilke's life will make note of Vietnam and 9/11, Ray Beilke said his more important work was in establishing a health care system for military retirees and their families that bridged the gap between military health care and Medicare.
"That was Max's baby," Ray Bielke said. "He grew up in the Alexandria area and ... it's quite an honor to have something named after a person with that kind of career."
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434