The crook in his back was just one obstacle Navy Cmdr. Brian Danielson encountered when trying to stand as straight and still as he possibly could.
As the Naval Aviator from Kenyon, Minnesota, stood guard at a seat in U.S. Bank Stadium that is dedicated to service members who have been Prisoners of War and/or are still Missing in Action, more than 66,000 Vikings fans stood and cheered.
Cmdr. Danielson joined service members who are accustomed to standing guard silently and solemnly at the seat last Sunday as part of the Vikings and NFL's Salute to Service. The seat is black and stands out amidst a sea of purple in Section V8. It features the POW/MIA logo and remains unfilled during Vikings games in tribute.
"I was almost overwhelmed with emotion, and it made it very challenging," Cmdr. Danielson said. "I had talked to the honor guard that was standing watch over the seats. That's their full-time job, and they told us how to best present yourself when you're standing guard over an important national symbol.
"An important part is to present the military bearing and to stand at a position of attention like you're standing watch. I was trying to do that, but I got a little bit emotional and I didn't want to show my cards," he added. "It was very difficult when people were clapping and supporting me. You could feel the vibe throughout the stadium of love and support, and that's a very humbling experience."
His father, Air Force Maj. Ben Danielson flew the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam. Maj. Danielson, who was a Captain at the time, was shot down in Laos on Dec. 5, 1969. One of the largest search-and-rescue missions ever led to the recovery of 1st Lt. Woody Bergeron, who was alive, but Danielson was not located.
View the story of Lt. Cmdr. Brian Danielson, who found his father Capt. Ben Danielson more than 35 years after he was classified as 'last known alive' and 'Missing in Action', after being shot down over Laos in 1969.
Ben Danielson was listed as "last known alive" and "Missing in Action." Brian Danielson said following the Vikings during the Purple People Eaters era, and even swapping correspondence with Vikings Legends Alan Page and Wally Hilgenberg, helped him through difficult times when hopes of ever bringing home his father's remains seemed lost.
Despite knowing first-hand the stakes that go along with service and sacrifice, Brian Danielson opted to become a pilot, and he has served seven tours of duty in Iraq.
In April 2006, Danielson (then a Lt. Cmdr.) became the first family member of an active MIA serviceman to participate in an excavation effort to find the remains of his father. He joined 15 members of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in the effort for 45 days. The group was unable to locate the remains on that trip but did bridge cultures and developed a mutual respect with residents in the area.
When Danielson returned from his seventh tour in September 2006, he was welcomed home by family and news that a bone fragment and dog tags had been found. A DNA test confirmed it was Maj. Danielson, providing closure after 38-plus years.
Cmdr. Danielson said some have expressed sympathy or feel sorry for all the years without his father and the waiting and aching involved during most of his life, but he doesn't see it as a sad story.
"The point for me is it should be an inspirational story," Danielson said. "For all of the things that are bad about our country: war, divisiveness, all of these types of things, my dad's story is uplifting to me because it shows the story of why you maintain hope and why you place faith in the government, why you place faith in your local communities. My community, my state, my government never gave up and always worked to get my dad home. That's a good news story."
Cmdr. Danielson, however, knows that other families are still waiting, including the family of Capt. Jim Herrick, including his niece Meshell Herrick, who was at Sunday's game. Cmdr. Danielson brought Meshell, her daughter, and his own cousins, "Lt. Nick Overby and Lt. Col. Steve Watson to the POW/MIA seat. Meshell, whose uncle was shot down a month before Ben Danielson, attended the service that was held in his honor.
Brian Danielson said the symbolism of the seat is strong because it represents a continuing effort to bring all the missing home.
"It's about the families that still wait, in my opinion, because I'm sitting there as someone who has had my family member returned," Cmdr. Danielson said. "I know what it's like to wait and to not now and the pain that goes with that, and to know that people are still engaged in activities to remember those people to make sure that they're not forgotten and to bring others home is more important to me now than it was before.
"It has a very large meaning. This is why I'm more emboldened to tell my story, because people are starting to forget or not realize the importance of the POW/MIA flag and honoring that flag," he added. "I'll take any chance I can to educate people on why it's so important because it talks about the value that we place on human life. We are the only country in the world that does these things, that goes back to battlefields to find and identify our dead and bring them home. That's a very important distinction. The adversaries that we're engaged with in Iraq and Afghanistan don't have that type of care of human life."
Cmdr. Danielson said some service members are deployed around the world for more than 180 days a year to help locate and return service members.
"That's a very powerful statement about the character of our country," Cmdr. Danielson said.