The moonlight glowed, softly and silently illuminating the statues of soldiers and wall etchings of the Korean War Memorial.
Rich Hullander had lived this moment multiple times while serving in Korea more than 70 years ago.
"I really get emotional as a I walk around and see the etchings on the marble walls because those are faces etched in there," Hullander explained. "They're just etchings, but I recognize people that I served with in them."
Hullander was one of five service members recognized in this year's Veterans Voyage presented by Hy-Vee.
He and the other veterans — Daniel Peterson, Eric Kerska, Marcus LeBlanc and Carlos Morales Vega — and a guest of each were flown earlier this month to Washington, D.C., for an all-expenses-paid trip that included visiting the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery and the Smithsonian Museum and touring several monuments by moonlight.
The group attended a dinner hosted by Lt. Gen. John Jensen, the Director of the Army National Guard, and his wife Cindy on the eve of watching the Vikings defeat the Commanders. The win occurred eight days after the group met the team — and 2022 Vikings Ring of Honor inductee Jared Allen — on the Saturday before Minnesota's win against Arizona.
Hy-Vee Vice President of Sports Marketing Matt Nickell said the trip was a great opportunity to continue partnering with the Vikings and showing support to veterans, active military members and their families.
"Having the opportunity to see those monuments was a very touching moment," Nickell said. "We're so honored with Hy-Vee that we have the opportunity to partner with the Vikings and bring these veterans out to have a wonderful weekend and hopefully experiences that they'll never forget."
United by Service
Hullander's desire and duty to serve went beyond his age.
The son of a World War I veteran, Hullander fabricated his age on paperwork he used to enlist in the National Guard in 1950. He was still 16 when he left for Camp Rucker, Alabama. He was on his way to Korea in June 1951 at age 17 handling combat duty as a mortarman and forward observer. Hullander came home a man and joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars the day he returned. He's been active in support of all veterans since and honoring those lost in what is sometimes referred to as "The Forgotten War."
"When I hear 'The Forgotten War,' I get a little irate. I emceed many Memorial Day services over the years, and when we'd have a speaker, he would talk about the Second World War and Vietnam and go on. I would stand right up and correct him. I don't know why people would forget the Korean War. We had 38,000 killed, 11,000 missing in action and over 100,000 wounded, but yet, it's called 'The Forgotten War.' "
Appreciation for the service and sacrifices of Korean War and Vietnam War veterans lagged, but the scars — emotional and physical — linger still for Hullander and Peterson, who are disabled veterans.
Peterson, who received his draft notice when he turned 18, has faced numerous health complications from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, but he remains grateful to have two children and seven grandchildren and for the family get-togethers during Vikings games.
He survived the Tet Offensive and other heavy fighting.
"You'd think you were going to win that war in Vietnam, and then all of a sudden you realize it's a war that's not going to be won," Peterson said. "Then you wonder, 'What role am I really playing?' That I'm being patriotic and fighting for my country, I'll never forget that. But for a war that can't be won, and Korea is kind of on the same page, we went and did what we were supposed to do."
There are 58,318 Americans who lost their lives while serving in Vietnam listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Peterson knows seven "guys that I knew fairly well in Vietnam" whom he saw pass away.
The unpopularity of that war led to ill treatment of the soldiers when they returned.
"That's the worst thing I ever did when I came back and was wearing my uniform," Peterson recalled. "I was very proud of my service, and all these people start yelling at you, screaming at you, spitting on you. I never put my uniform on again."
Peterson continued his family's service — his father, mother, two brothers and his wife's father and mother are all buried at Fort Snelling — and these days is greeted with sincere appreciation as his eyes peer from underneath a green Vietnam veteran hat.
After serving 23 years in the Army to work with Patriot missile systems and making multiple deployments to the Middle East, LeBlanc now works with the Veterans Affairs, helping other veterans with benefit claims. Also a disabled veteran, LeBlanc meets other veterans' needs with empathy and a heart to help.
"I feel like we're all connected in a way and it's actually great to see those veterans, meet them and understand their stories and their pasts," LeBlanc said. "I just feel like it's the best way to give back and help veterans get the benefits, the hospital care and everything they deserve for putting their lives on the line."
LeBlanc appreciates the outpouring of support that his era of service members has received.
"I think it's a lot better now with how communication has gotten out there to allow people to understand what soldiers are going through, especially with PTSD and understanding that veterans, we all joined, we all come from different cultures, we learn about each other and become like brothers and sisters, family members," LeBlanc said. "Once we get out, it's kind of like a strange, scary experience because for myself, all I knew was military, my family there, and getting out was a strange and scary experience.
"I'm glad that the experience and attitude toward veterans has changed because I've read stories where they didn't treat the veterans from Vietnam well because a lot of people opposed the war," LeBlanc continued. "They didn't choose to be there, but they actually stood up and supported our country. I have a lot of respect for the Vietnam veterans."
Kerska joined the Minnesota Army National Guard in high school in 1983 and served 32 years on active duty and in the Guard, serving as a tank commander in Operation Desert Storm and later making deployments to Iraq with the 1st Brigade, 34th Division (Red Bulls). Kerska's 22-month deployment from 2005-07 was the longest of any brigade during the Iraq War (2003-11). His unit was the final one to leave when that war ended.
Vega enlisted in the Army in September 2005. His platoon survived 12 IED attacks. Wounded in combat and awarded a Purple Heart, the loss of 55 "of my brothers" has weighed heavily.
Vega vowed to "live every day to the fullest to carry on the spirits of those who did not come home," and he is married to a fellow veteran, Ashley.
The group appreciated the opportunity to connect with others united in service.
"We always have the same experiences. It's like a brotherhood, the camaraderie," LeBlanc said. "If you get veterans together, we can always talk about the good times, the bad times, the friends we lost, the friends we met."