In what promises to become a staple amongst Veterans Day programs celebrated around the City of New Richmond, Friday Memorial Library presented its third annual Veteran's Round Table on Thursday, Nov. 9 at the New Richmond Civic Center.
Veterans Chuck Mehls, Sam King, Ron Ramos and Russ Donaghue along with Dennis Handrahan, brother of MIA Eugene Handrahan, and Dennis' wife, Mary, took time to discuss their perspective as veterans (or family) in front of a live audience at the civic center. New Richmond News reporter Tom Lindfors moderated the evening's discussion.
The panelists began by sharing their thoughts about how best to keep citizens in touch with veterans' experiences given the aging veteran population.
"I keep a logbook of not just the funeral procedures but the backgrounds of the families as well for each veteran we lose. We had 27 military funerals in 2016 plus two ceremonial funerals. That gets a little heavy on the guys. It makes you really aware of what's going on and the effects on the families," said Mehls.
"I've lost at least four fellow Vietnam veterans I've known over the last year or so. I think things like this panel are very important to keep the public aware of, not just what the service member sacrificed, but what the family sacrificed as well. Sometimes that goes too far unnoticed. It's important that we have public forums. I'm not sure it's been taught as well as it should be in schools because we have vital lessons we need to learn from WWII, Korea and Vietnam," said King.
"Community education is paramount. Organizations such as the American Legion, VFW and Disabled American Veterans (DAV), are key to preserving the memories of veterans. Veterans can dictate their stories to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and they will keep those stories on file for as long as the museum is around. Being able to look back on lessons learned is important for training soldiers in the future. Our VFW has recently started a program called Veterans in the Classroom where we tie current history lessons in with veterans' experiences. When students are learning about Vietnam, we have Vietnam veterans go into their classroom and speak about their experiences overseas, share firsthand accounts. When they were talking about the Middle East, I went in as a veteran from the Middle East and talked about my firsthand experience. Being able to pass that knowledge down is crucial to bridging that gap," said Ramos.
"I think the media tends to blow things out of proportion. It's hard to get the true facts of what actually goes on. That's one of the biggest things, getting the true facts out to the people of what really does happen in war, that would be a great thing," added Handrahan.
Ramos added, the opportunity for students to hear about 911 from himself, someone who was there and experienced it firsthand, made that history personal.
Vietnam veterans in the classroom are able to speak about their experiences from both the perspective of someone who was drafted and someone who enlisted in the service.
Panelists Ramos and King discussed one of the most important lessons learned from Vietnam.
"When I came back (from Iraq), I was welcomed back by these guys. We didn't have the problem that they had," said Ramos.
"As a member of DVA and Vietnam Veterans of America, we as a national organization said that when our young men like Ron came back we would not allow them to come back to what we came back to, which wasn't good. We made a point to let them know they are appreciated. But I don't think everybody has learned that lesson yet. At times, being a veteran in this country is still viewed as a negative by a lot of the population," said King.
"The only reason we got the homecoming we got was because of you folks who were in Vietnam and I thank you guys from the bottom on my heart, because I'll tell you what, when I came home it was hard," said Donaghue.
When asked if the United States has the moral authority to "step into" armed conflicts around the world, panelist Sam King said this.
"I feel we fought for the right cause, the freedom of the South Vietnam people. Do I think it was handled right, fought right, no. History has proven that. A lot of us who were there and saw what was going on then, knew that. When you have to retake the same piece of ground over and over again every few months and success is based on attrition and body count, what the hell? I did my job but that doesn't mean I didn't question it. After the Vietnam war, after we were totally out, after the flag came down in Saigon, it showed just how bad a job we did. We left behind hundreds of thousands of people that had helped and supported us to the mercy of the enemy and thousands of them were killed, thousands of them," said King.
Do Americans too frequently take their freedoms for granted?
"People don't realize when you join the service, all those freedoms that you fight for, you actually don't have. Soldiers don't have the right to say what we want nowadays. You can't say what you want about the president. You don't get to choose when you can leave and come back. You don't get to choose what you eat. All those freedoms are taken away from you. You get to fight for those freedoms. So when you come back, you've earned and appreciate those freedoms. Serving gives you a different perspective," said Ramos.
"If you've never been to a place where freedom is curtailed, you don't know what it's like. You have a whole different insight if you've ever been to a place where the people around you are controlled by the government and didn't have freedom. You can't miss what you haven't lost," warned King.
When asked whether instituting a draft would help Americans better appreciate the freedoms they take for granted, the panel had some interesting takes.
"I thought the day they did away with the draft was a big mistake. I haven't seen a reason to feel any other way. I don't necessarily mean that you have to go and serve in the military, but serving two years in service to your country I don't think is too much to ask. Imagine if we had two years service in something like the old Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930's and 40's. Asking someone to spend two years helping their fellow man isn't too much to ask," said King.
"We have one of the strongest militaries in the world due to the simple fact that the people who are wearing that uniform, just like each and every one of us, opted to wear the uniform. When you choose to wear the uniform, you tend to fight harder than someone who has to wear it," said Donaghue.
The evening ended with some thoughts on how well the Veteran's Administration is taking care of veterans.
"When I moved to Wisconsin I was homeless. I was struggling with the transition of getting out of the service. I wasn't prepared. I didn't want to leave the service. Downsizing happened, any blemish on your record and it was 'here you go, bye.' The Minneapolis VA helped me out. They got me a case worker. They were able to help me start finding a job. Then the VFW helped me get housing. Now for the most part, I'm on my feet and I have a job I love. Between the VA, the university medical center, the Legion, the VFW, DVA and everything we have in St. Croix County, we have a very good support system. The problem is, a lot of veterans still don't know about it. Opportunities like this are crucial to getting that information to veterans, We have a great County Veterans Service Officer, Phill (Landgraf). He will fight for you. We have the American Legion and the VFW, that will represent you and guide you on the way. I think we have a really good system in this part of the US. The more veterans that know about it, the better the chance they'll get the help they need," said Ramos.
To find out more about VFW Post 10818 New Richmond / St. Croix County visit them online at: vfwpost10818.org or contact them by phone at 715-246-0226.
To find out more about American Legion Butler-Harmon Post 80, visit them online at wilegionpost80.com or contact them by phone at 715-246-4980.
Contact St. Croix County Veterans Service Officer, Phill Landgraf at 715-386-4759 or by email at email@example.com.