Tom McLaughlin of Mankato looked forward to the day he would become a member of his local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post.
“I had an uncle who was at Iwo Jima, and I literally worshipped him when I was younger,” said McLaughlin. “So, when it was my turn to serve I gladly did it.”
What McLaughlin and other Vietnam War veterans did not anticipate was the kind of response they received when they returned.
There were no parades or even pats on the back for most who returned, and in many ways even other veterans turned their backs on them.
“I felt I was entitled to be part of the VFW, but I had to bust down the door to get in,” McLaughlin said, adding there was no way anyone was going to stop him. Unfortunately, not everyone was like McLaughlin, and rather than persist many just gave up and tried to blend in to everyday life.
Those Vietnam veterans never received the honor they were due from their country, and McLaughlin, alongside many other veterans, took part in an event called the Ride for Healing to pay that respect.
Respect is what the Ride for Healing is all about, as Lee Ulferts, current Minne-sota state commander, made this his state project for the year.
The ride, which officially kicked off Memorial Day continued through June 1 when those on the ride gathered in Brainerd.
During the ride different teams traveled throughout Minnesota, and one of those groups, including McLaugh-lin, Steve VanBergen, a past VFW state commander and Louie Mrozek, a past VFW state commander, stopped at different posts, including Marshall, Redwood Falls, Willmar, St. Cloud and Little Falls. Those teams met with local VFW members to talk about important issues they face and to offer their thanks to those who served.
Sitting around a table at VFW Post 2553 in Redwood Falls were six Vietnam veterans, including McLaughlin, VanBergen, Mrozek, Roger Hassebroek of Redwood Falls, Steve Luckhardt of Clements and Bob Mahoney of Redwood Falls.
“We want to meet our Vietnam buddies and to see if there is any way we can help get more of them involved in the VFW,” said Mrozek. “After all, we are all in it together.”
That “team” concept is new to Vietnam veterans, as so many years have gone by when they have felt like individuals because that is the way they were treated.
“The military made a huge mistake with Vietnam veterans, they treated them as individuals when they went in and when they got out,” said VanBergen, adding in Vietnam the older guys who had been in country for a while did not have time for the newbies, which further created a disconnect.
Page 2 of 2 - Those who never felt that sense of connection can find it in the VFW, said Mrozek, adding even if they have never been part of the organization it is not too late to get involved.
Vietnam veterans are the ones who are leading the VFW today, and VanBergen said the issue is finding a way to get younger veterans involved to ensure the future of the organization.
Furthering the message of the Vietnam War and those who served is also part of the Ride for Healing, as donations are being accepted to help build a multi-million dollar education center in Washington, D.C. to help people learn more about the Vietnam War and those who served as part of it. To learn more about getting involved visit www.vfw.state.mn.us.