Luverne's Gulden leads hundreds of World War II vets on Honor Flight
LUVERNE -- In little more than a month, Terrie Gulden will lead his third group of World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to view their memorial as part of Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota.
The skies will be blue, the sun will shine, and the veterans -- ranging in age from their mid-80s to early 90s -- will receive more accolades and thanks than they've ever imagined.
Well, Gulden can't do anything about the blue skies and sunshine, but he sure will see to it that the veterans get the thanks they deserve.
Back when many of them returned home from the war in the mid-1940s, there was no family waiting for them, no cheering crowds -- no flag-waving Americans to welcome them.
Gulden, who serves as president of Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota, can certainly relate to what many World War II veterans experienced. In his case, it wasn't indifference, but rather a hatred spewed by those who were against the war in Vietnam.
"What I saw and felt coming back home again -- it wasn't the same with World War II veterans as it was for us," said Gulden, who served 13 months in Vietnam after enlisting in the Marine Corps a month after his graduation from Round Lake High School.
"We were told not to wear our uniforms when we went home on leave," he said. "That was during the riots of 1968. There was tremendous hatred for the Vietnam War. People said they'd hate you -- spit on you, and they did once they saw your haircut.
"I think that was true with some World War II veterans," he added. "I know what that felt like. It just makes you go a little bit farther to say thank you to these folks."
Gulden said his sensitivity to the welcome home made seeing the welcomes given the World War II veterans on Honor Flight that much more special.
"The thank yous were so desperately needed," he said.
Born on a farm near Montevideo, Gulden moved with his family to Sleepy Eye and Round Lake before his military career sent him to far-off soil. When he returned, he settled in Rock County.
After many years working in computer software development -- the last five as the company president -- Gulden switched gears and started up an eldercare business in Luverne, handling guardianships and helping people in need. When Rock County needed someone to oversee its transit system, Gulden was offered the job.
He now serves as transit director for Rock County Heartland Express, which manages three buses providing transportation services to all Rock County residents. It also manages 25 volunteer drivers who transport Rock County residents to appointments outside of the county. Gulden manages the budget and takes care of all the reporting and planning processes.
His experiences along the way have helped pave the way as president of Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota. Gulden has been tasked with working out the logistics for the two flights that have already taken place, and the two yet to come.
Gulden was serving on the committee for the Herreid Military Museum in Luverne when the idea was broached about sending local World War II veterans on Honor Flight. He offered to do what he could to help, and in November 2009, a small committee met to start the discussion.
"We (met) to talk about two things -- our military museum and secondarily, Honor Flight," Gulden said. "It seemed like the museum was more important at the time, but the Honor Flight was what consumed us."
Gulden was skeptical about the committee's potential to raise the $140,000 needed for that first flight, and it was his idea to open up the concept to three neighboring counties -- Nobles, Murray and Pipestone.
The next step was to create Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota and complete the paperwork required to make it a hub.
"I pushed really hard to get us officially designated as a hub because we couldn't make it work with South Dakota," Gulden said.
Sending Rock County vets on a trip with their neighbors to the west wasn't an option, because South Dakota was giving top priority to the veterans in its own state.
By December 2009, the group had verbal approval to be an Honor Flight hub. Stories on World War II veterans started to be featured in the Daily Globe on Christmas Eve, with the plan to publish a veteran's story once each week until the first flight.
The Honor Flight committee developed buttons that were sold to help raise money, and committee members turned to their community businesses and organizations for donations.
"We got our official status around the time of that first Deep Freeze Dip (in January 2010), and when that came in with $45,000, we said, 'We're in -- we're going to make this flight work,'" Gulden said.
The remaining $90,000 came in through sponsorships, donations and button sales.
A week before the flight was scheduled to take 110 World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., Gulden and fellow committee member Jane Lanphere boarded a plane with South Dakota Honor Flight as a trial run of sorts. Gulden said he watched, took notes and went over the details with the South Dakota trip captain.
"We could see, feel and taste all the details that go into a trip," he added.
First one, then another
Even as the list of World War II veterans continued to grow prior to that first trip, Gulden believed they would just make one flight.
"We had no idea we were going to draw the attention we did," he said.
The newspaper articles helped spread the word to points well beyond the four counties that made up Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota, and soon applications began arriving from Jackson County to the east up to Willmar and Alexandria.
"It's still going, and it's amazing," said Gulden of the applications.
For the third flight, scheduled for April 29-30, veterans from an area that spreads from Luverne to Blue Earth to Willmar, Wheaton and back to Rock County are on the flight list. And he can't forget northwest Iowa -- there are more than a dozen from there who will also embark on the journey.
Gulden said Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota is different from the other Honor Flight trips that have been organized. Minnesota had Honor Flight hubs in Rochester, St. Cloud and Minneapolis -- putting a 60-mile ring around each hub city and only serving the World War II veterans who lived within it.
"That leaves a huge part of Minnesota that's unsupported, and I said, 'Let's not do that.'"
Since the inaugural flight, Gulden said he's spoken with people at the Rochester hub, and they are going to work their way westward to Fairmont to offer the flight. As of yet, St. Cloud hasn't spread beyond its ring, and it's unlikely Minneapolis will -- there are still more than 2,000 veterans on the waiting list.
In Iowa, Sioux City served as a hub and did three flights before calling it quits about a year and a half ago. South Dakota quit taking applications on Dec. 31, and plans to do two final flights in 2011.
Though the third Honor Flight Southwest Minnesota has yet to depart, Gulden is already envisioning a fourth flight -- one he refers to as a cleanup flight -- this fall. On it, he said, will be veterans from Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota who have not yet had a chance to see their memorial.
The biggest challenge with opening the flight up to three states is raising the money from all of the communities who are sending veterans. Money has trickled in from some communities farther to the north, and the Southwest Initiative Foundation gave a big boost with its $25,000 contribution during fundraising for the second flight.
"We sit back and wonder, how do we raise money? I can't fundraise in communities that I'm unfamiliar with," Gulden said.
"We had some money to start this next flight,and right now it looks good," said Gulden.
Each flight has about 50 guardians responsible for assisting the veterans during the two-day trip; they pay $800 to go. That helps the budget as well.
Whether the funds for a fourth flight can be raised remains to be seen.
"I think if we knew there was an endless supply of money and an endless supply of veterans, we'd keep doing it, but that isn't the case," Gulden said. "We're running out of time with these guys."
The healing process
When the Honor Flight Network was formed, its mission was to get World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., to view their memorial. By the time it was completed in 2004, so many of the veterans had died, and thousands more were unable to make the journey.
Thanks to Honor Flight, veterans are provided free transportation, meals and lodging to see not only the World War II Memorial, but the Vietnam, Korean, Marine Corps and Navy memorials as well.
For Gulden, it isn't the memorials, but the memories of Mail Call and welcomes that have meant the most to him.
"You can take these World War II veterans to Washington, D.C., but the thing that means the most to them is the greeting they get when they come home," he said. "(That) and the mail call -- they talk about that with their families until the day they die."
Seeing their reactions has been a healing process of sorts for Gulden.
"It has helped me wrestle with that time in my life when everything seemed so negative," he said. "I see how much it means to these World War II veterans (to be welcomed home). I see the tears in their eyes when they read a letter.
"It's been a wonderful experience, and I haven't regretted a minute of sleep I've missed worrying about the logistics," he added.
Gulden said when he returned home from Vietnam, he "really didn't do anything -- didn't say much."
He raised his family -- Gulden and his wife, Linda, a former teacher who also serves on the Honor Flight staff, have two sons, John and Eric, along with daughters-in-law Noelle and Megan. They have three grandchildren: Quinn, Else and Jack.
As time went on, Gulden began to open up about his military service. He joined the Patriot Guard after becoming outraged by people who were protesting at military funerals.
"That really burns me up," he said.
When he saw the formation of flag lines to keep the protesters at bay, Gulden realized many of those guys were Vietnam veterans.
"People really do appreciate (the Patriot Guard) coming out and honoring that family, especially when these protesters say the kinds of things they are saying," he said. "It's the saddest thing I've ever seen happen."
These days, Gulden not only honors veterans through the Patriot Guard, he also serves on the Rock County Honor Guard and helped lead a campaign to get more veterans from the younger generation involved.
"Our guys that were doing all of the (military) funerals, they were all World War II veterans out there with the ice and snow," he said.
Today, all of them have gladly retired and the next generation of veterans has stepped in.
"I have the privilege of doing pretty much all of the veteran funerals here in Rock County if I'm available," Gulden said. "I'm really honored to do that."