Men of Honor: Legion, VFW members collaborate to provide military rites
WORTHINGTON -- If the local Honor Guard had a motto, it might be similar to what's inscribed on the General Post Office in New York City: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
In the case of the veterans, however, it could read: Neither snow nor blizzard nor rain nor sleet nor gale-force wind nor cold nor heat stays these men from honoring their fellow veterans.
The local Honor Guard, comprised of members of both American Legion Calvin Knuth Post 5 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Voak-Janssen Post 3958, provides military honors at burial for all United States military veterans and also organizes and presides over the local Memorial Day services and ceremonies. The Legion members serve as the color guard, and the VFW is the firing squad. Currently representing the American Legion are: Steve Ahlberg, Rich Greve, George Habeck, Terry Morrison, Verlin Ostrem, Monte Tolsma and Tom Tracy. The VFW representatives are Larry Comnick, Jim Hart, Francis Meier, Stan Moritz and Vern Verbrugge.
So far this year, they've provided military honors for 21 local veterans, standing in the cemetery in the bitter cold, sweltering heat, driving rain and other adverse weather conditions, to give a final salute and farewell to arms for their comrades.
Here are a few of their stories:
Although he has played "Taps" at hundreds, if not thousands, of funerals, Morrison can still get caught up in the moment.
"Occasionally I have to be careful so I don't get emotional myself," he said. "I've played it for a couple of uncles and my cousin once, and I have to keep focused. I haven't ever done it without feeling nervous."
Morrison enlisted and served in the Air Force from 1964-1969, and it was his musical ability that kept him out harm's way.
"I played trumpet in the Air Force Field Band," he explained. "I had never heard of Vietnam. I wasn't a current-events-kind of guy in high school, so before the war escalated, I didn't know where Vietnam was. ... The rumor mill in the military is insane. I had just finished the firing range and gotten an expert marksmanship medal, because I was a kid here in southwest Minnesota, with hunting and rifles and all that stuff, so I wasn't scared of the M16. The target actually looked huge. But the rumor about two days later was that anybody who had expert marksmanship was going to go to Vietnam to guard planes over there, be put in the military police."
Instead, Morrison's military career took him to Louisiana, then to the Philippines.
"We went to Thailand four or five times, to small bases in northern Thailand," he recalled. "We would play concerts. Our thing was morale, to bring some semblance of the real world to the guys, things they were familiar with. We'd always play a concert in the local town, which was always exciting because everyone in the town would come."
On one memorable occasion, the band played for a state visit by President Lyndon Johnson on the island of Guam.
"At the time, I had changed to the baritone, so I played in the front rank, between three trombones. Johnson walked right in front of me. I could have tripped him, but I figured several years at Leavenworth wouldn't be worth the 15 minutes of fame."
Morrison joined the American Legion shortly after his discharge, and his musical abilities have been utilized on the Honor Guard for about 30 years.
"About 15 years ago or so, I started keeping a log, with the date, the (deceased) person's name, the cemetery and a little bit about the weather," he said. "That's the reality to it. There's the duty, honor and country part, and that's significant, but the reality is that in the middle of winter, those cemeteries are cold, and you're standing out there in your long underwear and everything else you can think to wear. I have to hold my mouthpiece in my hand so it won't stick to my lips.
"But it's a fantastic ceremony, I believe, that has been fine-tuned over many decades."
VFW representative Moritz sometimes misses out on a few hours of sleep in order to fulfill his Honor Guard duties, but he doesn't lament the lost ZZZs.
"For the last 28 years, I've been working nights, so I can always go to the funerals. It breaks up my sleeping time, but I want somebody to fire at the cemetery for me when I die, so I give up a little sleep so I can do it for the other people," he said.
When Moritz enlisted in the Army in 1963, right out of high school, he signed on for four years instead of the usual three, because his schooling would take an extra year.
"I took the Air Force test first and they wanted to make me a mechanic, and I didn't like getting my fingers dirty," said Moritz, who recalled helping his farmer dad overhaul engines during the winter months. "So I went to the Army then. I was in the Army security agency. I can't really tell you a lot. The National Security Agency in Maryland was our boss. We intercepted the enemy's communications, and I figured out who the people were, who was talking, what frequencies, what time of day, and I also broke their codes and messages."
After a four-month training stint at the NSA, Moritz was sent to Korea. Because of the nature of his unit's work and how easily he took to it, Moritz was put in charge of people who ranked above him.
"Then they wanted some people to go to Vietnam, because they were starting a new program down there, so I went down there for three months," he said. "... Twenty-four hours a day you carried your rifle with you with 200 rounds of live ammo, because we could be attacked at any time. There was always artillery going off about a block away from us. That was something else. When you first got there, you heard the artillery; after you were there for a little while, you didn't hear it, but when you were getting ready to leave, you started hearing it again.
"The day we were supposed to leave, the Air Force wouldn't fly that day because it was foggy," he recalled. "While we were waiting, a helicopter flew up from Da Nang, 40 miles away. It was brand new, and it had 96 bullet holes in it by the time it got there. Nobody had a scratch, but we said we'd wait to go out on a regular plane. A Marine plane would fly, so they brought in new Marines and took us out by airplane to Da Nang."
It took a few years after his discharge for Moritz to join the VFW, but he's been on the firing squad since 1970 and has served as post commander. He also spent 12 years in the National Guard.
"I'm the guy who's been there the longest, and I think I'm also one of the youngest in the crowd, and I'm 67," he said.
When Ostrem's mother called his workplace on April 1, 1960, to say his draft notice had arrived, he thought she was pulling an April Fool's prank.
"I was working at Rickbeil's," he recalled. "But when I went home, sure enough, there was the letter saying you've got 30 days to get your business in order."
Ostrem and fiancée Brenda had planned to get married in June, so they quickly moved the date up, honeymooning at Niagara Falls before he reported for duty.
Ostrem's proficiency at typing landed him a plum assignment on a secret mission to Iran.
"I could type better than the instructor -- 85 words a minute on the old manual typewriters -- so they sent me to typing school," he explained. "I said, 'I don't need this,' but they said I needed to learn military correspondence. So I didn't fight it. It got down to graduation time, and a lot of guys got their orders for Vietnam or they were going on to other advanced training schools. I figured, as a draft man, that they wouldn't go to the expense of sending me anywhere. ... The first sergeant got in front of the whole company and was talking about possible candidates for a secret mission. I wasn't really paying any attention, and then he called my name off. My heart went clear down to my toes."
After several pitstops at various bases, each with another round of immunizations against whatever foreign diseases he might encounter, Ostrem flew first-class commercial air to Tehran, where he was stationed at the armored cavalry center, typing out training schedules.
"I spent a year there, as a PFC (private first class), and I had my own Jeep and could drive it anywhere I wanted to. I'd go down at night, right into Tehran, where they had the most beautiful intersections full of flowers and trees and colored lights and flags, and take pictures. ... Socially there was nothing to do -- no local tavern, you couldn't drink the water, and the only place we could go was the NCO (non-commissioned officer) club, where everybody hung out. But we lived in a great big house -- 15 to 20 guys there from different groups -- and had six hired help that we paid. I think I paid $11 a month to have all these servants. When we'd get up, our breakfast would be ready, our boots would be polished, and we'd just have to get dressed and go to work."
Although he was asked to extend his tour, Ostrem was ready to go state-side, and he finished out the rest of his service in Fort Carson, Colo. He returned to his job at Rickbeil's, then started his own locksmith business in 1991. He sold the business and retired in 2003.
"Most of those years, I've been on the Honor Guard, probably 28 to 30 years," said Ostrem, a Legion member and former commander.
The Vietnam War was still on the far-off horizon when Tom Tracy enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. The year was 1960.
"It was peace time when I went in," said Tracy. "I checked them all (branches of service) out, and thought I'd get the best school out of the Air Force."
Initially, Tracy was sent for training in microwaves.
"I phased out of that because I couldn't stay awake in class and didn't discover what my problem was until too late," he recalled. "So then I switched over into something mechanical, and that was machine guns and missiles and bombs. I ended up in armament."
During his three-year enlistment, Tracy was stationed stateside, first training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, then moving on to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., and finally Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nev.
"I was only 19 when I got (to Nellis), and you had to be 21 to go to anything," he remembered about being in the proximity of the Vegas strip. "But I suppose Nellis was the best. I did have fun there."
Tracy has been actively involved in the American Legion for 26 years, and he's currently in his second stint as post commander. He volunteered to be on the Honor Guard about 15 years ago.
"They needed somebody. They were a little short, and I thought, 'Why not?'" Tracy reflected about his participation. "And I had it pretty easy when I was in the service, so it's only right that I honor the guys who didn't have it so easy."
While there may be a bit of good-natured ribbing between the Legion and VFW factions, Tracy appreciates that they cooperate as one Honor Guard unit for funeral duty.
"We just work together," he said. "There are so many people in the community who belong to either one or the other, and some belong to both. And a vet doesn't have to belong to either to get a military burial. Any vet gets the honors. We work together, because there's not enough of either one of us to work alone."
Like many of his comrades, Verbrugge joined the U.S. Army because he wanted specific training.
"I wanted to go to finance school," he said. "I decided I was going to enlist because I was guaranteed finance school, and I worked in a finance office the whole time."
Verbrugge's service dates are 1963-1966.
"I missed Vietnam by about three months," he explained. "I came home for my sister's wedding in February of 1965. By the time I got back, I found out I was going to go to Korea. I went to bed late that night, and the next day the colonel called me in and said, 'Here are your orders for Korea.' I got home in June, and the division I was with went to Vietnam two months later. So I spent a year and a half in Korea instead of a year and a half in Vietnam."
After his discharge, Verbrugge returned to his parents' home near Chandler.
"The wife and I got married in June of '65, and I went to work at Cargill. Then two years later I went to work for Armour's," he said. "After a couple of months, some guys approached me to join the VFW, and I did, although I wasn't very active the first three or four years."
Eventually, Verbrugge became part of the VFW color guard, primarily marching in the annual King Turkey Day parade because his work schedule impeded further involvement.
"I got really active when I retired from work, about five years ago," Verbrugge said. "I think it's our duty to our veterans who passed on before us."
While mostly retired, a few of the men in the Honor Guard continue to work, and others go south for the winter, making it hard to field more than a handful of representatives for some funerals. The men agree that winter is the toughest time to be part of the Honor Guard.
"When you've got to go pick up the rounds out of the snowbanks, it's harder yet," Verbrugge said. "The cemetery (maintenance crews) don't like to hit the shells with their lawnmowers."
Hardships aside, the men continue to show up out of honor and respect for all those who have ever donned a uniform in service to their country.
"It still strikes a chord, every time we do it," said Verbrugge.
Any veteran interested in joining the Honor Guard can contact (American Legion) Verlin Ostrem, 376-4933, or (VFW) Vern Verbrugge, 372-2744.