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Social studies instructor Rachel Heggen is pictured with the Vietnam veterans who visited her classroom recently: Larry Nicholson, Ronald DuRand, Wayne Ellefson, Ed Ahonen, Wayne Wermager, and Russ Stabler.

Vietnam veterans - brothers for life

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A tenth grade world history class at West Fargo High School was privileged to participate in an eye-opening 'living history lesson' recently, prepping them for the Memorial Day holiday and bringing new meaning to the annual observance that honors the memory of U.S. men and women who died in military service.

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Social studies instructor Rachel Heggen invited six Vietnam veterans to visit her classroom and share their wartime experiences as well as field a variety of well thought out inquiries during a direct and intense question and answer session.

Heggen was doubly motivated in this endeavor. Since her class was studying the Cold War and the chapter contained very little information on the Vietnam War, she wanted to provide them with a real-life experience, she felt would be way more valuable than reading from a textbook. Her own father is also a Vietnam vet, who doesn't talk a lot about his experience, so she "thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of other Veterans who most likely went through similar situations as my dad because I really think they all deserve recognition for their bravery and the time given for our country."

Wayne Wermager of West Fargo, who serves as commander of the local Vietnam Veterans of America Fargo Chapter 941, coordinated the visit of Vietnam veterans - Ed Ahonen, Ronald DuRand, Wayne Ellefson, Larry Nicholson, and Russ Stabler, representing North Dakota, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.

"It's an honor for us to be here today," Wermager told the students, noting there are 78 members in the local chapter, with national headquarters located in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Each of the veterans introduced themselves, sharing background information, including military branch, years of service and their specific roles in the military which covered the gamut from 'the nasty trick department' (being qualified on every weapon); to communication specialist; to truck driver; to scouting and reconnaissance.

A rapid-fire question and answer session followed with students enthusiastically eager to learn more about these men who fought to protect and defend their freedom.

A sampling of the responses went like this:

Q. Did you enlist or were you drafted?

A. With the draft at that time utilizing a lottery system, that meant the lower your number the quicker you would serve, many said they enlisted, with one summing it up this way "they basically said, if you are warm you are going." (All answered)

Q. What did you do in your free time?

N. "There wasn't much free time, we worked twelve hour days. We all volunteered for the night shift so we could sleep all day, because most of the artillery was at night and if you worked days you couldn't usually sleep at night." (Nicholson)

Q. What was your distinct memory of the war?

"When we were finally discharged and landed in Hawaii and GIs were literally kissing the ground."

"My first casualty. I had to try and keep him going during a firefight and he passed away." (Ahonen)

"Coming back pretty crazy and mixed up. Now after being helped, I would have been able to make it through, but I couldn't at that time." (DuRand)

Q: What affected you the most?

"Just everybody being together fighting for a common cause. We were having an impact on things going on back home, just like now. We may not always agree with the war but we always appreciate and support the warriors so we can maintain our quality of life." (All answered)

Q: What did you encounter when you got home?

"When I got to the old Hector airport in Fargo there was a lot of support and in my hometown of Waubun, Minn. I don't think I bought a meal or beer for myself for a solid two months." (Wermager)

"It was a rough time all the way across the country. None of my relatives would talk to me. I wasn't good enough." (Stabler)

"Empty cans and foul language came across the fence. It was Easter Sunday and I had lost my family, my home, truck, dog and best friend. I became an alcoholic. One day four vets grabbed me by the ears and said 'we are going to help you.' I am so proud to be a part of this group today." (Ahonen)

Q: How did your life change during the war?

A. "I grew up very quickly and it caused me to make some not so good choices.

"It made me appreciate life more." (DuRand)

"At 18 or 19 years old you grew up overnight but met a lot of good people too."

Q. What provided some of the happier moments?

A. "Getting mail, trying to find a quiet peaceful place, playing a lot of cards." (Nicholson)

"Enjoying it when a chopper came in and we could open a can of beer." (Ahonen and Stabler)

The session concluded by Heggen and her classroom offering special thank-yous to the veterans for their visit as well as their military commitment, contributions and perseverance in the face of unyielding adversity.

When ultimately asked if they had any regrets about their years of service, the same clear and forceful response rang true from all six extremely proud veterans with a direct reference to the POW/MIA (Prisoner of War/Missing in Action) cause" "No! We would all do it again in a heartbeat. If they don't come home, send us back to get them."

For that very reason, to this day, Memorial Day and all other national military-related holidays, take on added significance for Vietnam veterans all across the country, who 'gave their all' during this infamous time in the country's war history, as a result evolving into a truly special legion of brothers, undeniably bonded for life."

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