Clayton Irmen sat quietly Monday morning as he took in all the pomp and fanfare of the state of Minnesota’s annual Veterans Day ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Community Center in Inver Grove Heights.
The star-spangled balloons. The Armed Forces anthems. The governor, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, the members of Congress.
All were part of a stirring program honoring people like Irmen, one of more than 300,000 military veterans across Minnesota. As the World War II vet looked around at the spectacle, he shrugged.
“We were just doing our little part,” the 93-year-old Bloomington man said. “There was no bigness about it.”
To the contrary: Everything Irmen and his comrades did in World War II was big, and Monday — Veterans Day — was a day for Minnesota to pay tribute to their sacrifice.
Irmen enlisted in 1944, just out of high school, and landed in Marseille, France, in September with the U.S. Army’s 100th Infantry Division. He dug foxholes in the Vosges Mountains and ducked when Nazi mortar shells came roaring in. One soldier from Irmen’s squad was killed just 10 feet from him.
Irmen’s division eventually moved east across France and into Germany, taking Stuttgart. Then, one day in May 1945, it ended, just like that.
“I heard someone yell, ‘The war is over!’ ” Irmen said. “You’re dirty and you’re muddy, and you just ask yourself, ‘OK, what do we do now?’ ”
Monday morning in Inver Grove Heights, Irmen joined 250 people to honor the holiday that began as Armistice Day 101 years ago at the end of World War I and was renamed Veterans Day in 1954. World War II veterans stood next to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Hats and jackets commemorating the wars in Korea and Vietnam could be spotted in the crowd, too.
Minnesota’s veteran history dates to the Civil War. Minnesota was the newest state admitted to the Union at that time, and the first to have soldiers volunteer for its defense. Some 24,000 Minnesotans — 13% of the state’s population — volunteered to serve in the bloody conflict.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., whose father was killed in the Vietnam War when Phillips was a baby, was one of several political dignitaries who spoke about the importance of caring for veterans.
“We’re all aware of the fact that we’re a nation that has historically always found the resources to go to war but somehow lacks them when it comes time to take care of you when you come home,” Phillips said. “And that will not stand. That will not stand.”
Gov. Tim Walz, who served in the Army National Guard, recalled the sense of unity and camaraderie from serving, and how both are badly needed in today’s America.
“You leave here with that sense of unity we all know that comes with sharing service,” Walz said. “You leave here knowing that this is a room that no matter what’s swirling outside, internationally or domestically, things feel right in this space.”
Maj. Jon A. Jensen, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, quoted former President Calvin Coolidge: “The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.”
Standing in the back, leaning on his cane, Irmen rewound his memory to his 20 years of active duty in the Army, from saving the world from fascists in World War II to fighting the communists in Korea a few years later. He could recall names and hometowns of young men who were with him in the foxholes nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
“The guys who were out there with you,” he said, “they’re never forgotten.”