Vietnam veterans honored
North Dakota military vets honored with D.C. trip
Female vet awarded special honor
By Michael Standaert
North Dakota News Cooperative
WASHINGTON − A simple “Thank you for your service” can stir up conflicting memories for some military veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam.
Many North Dakota Vietnam vets got the cold shoulder when they returned. No fanfare, no flags, no clapping crowds.
For the 99 veterans who joined the Western North Dakota Honor Flight -- particularly the 86 with Vietnam experience -- the claps, flags and thank you wishes they received on their expenses-paid Sunday trip to Washington, D.C., were a welcome, if long coming, change.
“What impressed me most was the volunteers; they’re so accommodating,” said James Mitzel, a U.S. Army veteran from Bismarck who was drafted in 1968 at age 24 and served as a paymaster in Vietnam. “When you get off the bus they clap, when you get on the bus they clap -- it’s just overwhelming. It’s something we didn’t receive getting back from Vietnam.”
Alvin Skager, of Mandan, a former helicopter crew chief and mechanic who served in Vietnam from 1967-1970, had similar thoughts.
“At the time I came back, if your haircut gave an idea that you were a military man, there wasn’t much nice treatment,” Skager said. “To be honest, I was spit at, but never spit on.
“When we got off in Baltimore there were people standing there clapping and it did impress me. Some people do appreciate us.”
The Western North Dakota Honor Flight started in 2019 but was disrupted by the pandemic, making this trip only the second for the organization. It is part of the Honor Flight Network, which since 2005 has brought more than 250,000 veterans to visit memorials in Washington.
On Sunday, veterans visited the Marine Corps War Memorial, sometimes known as the “Iwo Jima” Memorial, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, the Military Women’s Memorial and the Air Force Memorial.
Visits on Monday were scheduled to include a viewing of the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, the Navy Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Lincoln Memorial and Vietnam War Memorial.
At the Vietnam War Memorial, some veterans wept, one loudly gasped “too many names,” while more paged through directories of fallen soldiers under the canopy of shimmering leaves.
For Skager, visiting the National Archives and viewing the constitution was a special moment.
“As a military man, having said the oath to protect this country, I didn’t get the gist of it all until I entered the building and walked around and saw everything,” Skager said. “At 17 when I left for the regular army, I had my mom sign for me, and I was just changing my environment. I didn’t realize what I was stepping off the diving board into.”
Mitzel, like many Vietnam vets, returned home from that war alone on a domestic flight.
“Nowadays when they send you out to a war zone you go as a unit, come back as a unit. It makes a big difference,” he said.
James Hilzendeger, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army who joined in 1969, said soldiers saw the demonstrations against the war before returning and felt like they almost had to sneak home.
Upon arrival back in North Dakota, he was greeted only by his mother and one of his seven brothers.
“The Vietnam War wasn’t a popular war,” the Napoleon resident Hilzendeger said. “It wasn’t popular at all.”
Hilzendeger recalls that after being processed through a facility in Oakland, California after returning home, he and another soldier exited a door that locked behind them. From there they were on their own to make it to the airport and get their own tickets back to North Dakota.
Francis Miller, of Mandan, joined the Army early in 1965, serving as a communications specialist among other duties in Vietnam.
“I wish a lot more people could understand the consequences of conflict,” Miller said. “I was disappointed in the way things ended (with the war), but there’s really nothing you can do about it.”
Richard Forderer, of Bismarck, joined the Army in 1969, serving as a mechanic in the 1st Infantry Division, also known as the Big Red One. Upon returning to North Dakota he worked mostly as a truck driver.
“A lot of remembering,” Forderer said of what was on his mind after the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier ceremony, which was visibly emotional for veterans who lost friends and fellow soldiers in the line of duty. “Remembering what people gave to serve their country and everything.”
Forderer, like others, said he hopes the memories of those who served and of those who lost their lives in Vietnam don’t fall away from popular consciousness.
“People who were in the military (remember) but civilians, I’m not sure, especially the younger generation,” he said. “There’s not much being said about Vietnam.”
At the Women’s Military Memorial, Victoria Neff-Tolbert, an Army veteran from Turtle Lake, was honored with an award for her service. Neff-Tolbert, who enlisted in the Army from 1974-78, joined out of high school to “see the world” but was soon confronted with a “man’s world.”
“They just didn’t want us there,” she recalls of one trip to a firing range where an instructor cautioned that she should hold the butt of the 12-gauge rifle close to her shoulder to reduce recoil. “The guy next to me says, 'You’re a female, you’ll want to hold it a few inches away so it has a further distance to travel, so it won’t hurt as much.'”
Not a good decision.
“Do you know how hard it is to do push-ups when your shoulder is all messed up?” she recalled.
Many of the veterans on the trip weren’t even aware of the existence of the Women’s Military Memorial, which sits just outside the rolling green knolls of Arlington National Cemetery.
“It’s just absolutely amazing,” Neff-Tolbert, the first woman veteran on a Western ND Honor Flight, said. “If there are any females out there who haven’t taken advantage of being able to go do this, it’s absolutely incredible.”
Jerome Schaack, of Bismarck, who served in the Air Force from 1957-59, said the Women’s Military Memorial was a pleasant surprise.
“I didn’t know it existed, to tell you the truth,” he said.
George Walker, of Mandan, an Air Force veteran who served from 1964-67, worked as an aircraft prop mechanic in the Philippines and in Saigon during the war.
“They paid their dues too,” Walker said of women veterans. “And some of them gave it all.”
Besides the large Vietnam veteran contingent, eight from the Korean war, three from the post-Korean War period, and two Cuban Missile Crisis veterans joined the trip to D.C.
Outside the Marine Corps Memorial, Duane Wolf recalled his own landing at Iwo Jima, as part of a training exercise during his time as a Marine between 1955 to 1958.
“I was just thinking how much trouble we had getting ashore with the Peter boats (landing craft) under no fire, we had to wade in up to our neck,” Wolf said. “No fire. And these guys were coming in under hot fire. It’s amazing.”
Wolf, of Dickinson, saw no action other than these “shows of force” and would have made a landing during the Suez Crisis of 1956 before it was averted by a diplomatic agreement. Wolf served nearly 38 years in the Dickinson police department and 16 years as a Stark County Commissioner.
Jerome Schaack, one of eight U.S. Air Force veterans on the trip, reflected on his service as an aircraft navigator during a visit to the Air Force Memorial. His closest brush with action came during the Taiwan Straits Crisis, when he and other airmen shuttled fighter jets to the region as a forward deployment.
Asked if younger generations are aware of the contribution veterans like him made to the security of the country during the Cold War, Schaak said he thought it was somewhat minimal.
“I think the further we get away from it, the less people remember, which is kind of natural, I think,” he said. “I can ask my grandkids about it, and they don’t know much. They know I served, but that’s about it.”
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All photos credit Poppy Mills, Western ND Honor Flight photographer
image7: Victoria Neff-Tolbert, a U.S. Army veteran from Turtle Lake displays her award she received at the Women’s Military Memorial on Sunday.
Image10: Veterans also visited the Marine Corps War Memorial on Sunday, sometimes known as the “Iwo Jima” Memorial.
image12: North Dakota veterans visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Sunday during the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery.