Veterans near Swanville tour Vietnam, get a rousing ‘welcome back’ when they returned home

Exiting the “Welcome Home” bus during the recent Swanville Vietnam Vets parade (from left) are Len Sanoski, Neil Hagstrom (waving) and Bob Koetter. They returned from a trip to Vietnam that was funded by local donations. Photo by James Och

Ten Vietnam veterans from the area around Swanville received the welcome home they never had following a return trip to Vietnam in April and May. Their community and other veterans gathered to applaud their service and sacrifice, giving them the honor that had been lacking so many years ago. It was a profound moment for nearly everyone in attendance.

“We welcomed them all back the way they should have been 50 years ago,” said trip co-planner Bryan Allen. “It was really an emotional day.”

Allen accompanied his parents to Vietnam 14 years ago. His father found closure during those two weeks for his time serving in Vietnam.

“I was really nervous on that first trip about hostility, but the Vietnamese are the most friendly, welcoming people,” Allen said.

Seven years later, in 2011, Allen returned to Vietnam with his former wife, Kelly, and their son, Grant, who was 15 at the time. Allen and Kelly began talking about raising funds to send local Vietnam veterans on the same journey.

“We wanted to take local vets to Vietnam so they could experience it too,” he said.

The planning began then, but really took off in 2017, with some serious fundraising. Starting with area American Legion posts, VFW posts and Lions Clubs, Allen began putting out information and sending out flyers. Enough funds were collected to send 10 vets.

“We had 21 applicants,” he said. “The initial plan was to take 15, but we didn’t have the heart to leave anyone out.”

The applicants were divided in two, with the first group including those vets who lived closest to Swanville. The remaining 11 vets will be heading to Vietnam in October. That group includes people from Sauk Rapids, Belgrade, Sauk Centre, Long Prairie, Bowlus, Randall and Little Falls.

Kelly and Allen’s mother, Karen, accompanied the first group. Karen will be the “head guide” on the fall trip. The groups are guided in Vietnam by two Vietnamese citizens who helped the Allens on their very first trip, 14 years ago.

“We rent a bus and driver in Vietnam for the entire trip,” said Allen. “The tour starts in Da Nang and goes down to the Mekong Delta. Then they go over to the Cu Chi tunnels and back to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).”

Terry Mentel, of Long Prairie, thought the trip was very interesting.

They and other area Vietnam-era vets were honored during a ceremony in Swanville, May 6. A good crowd (left) was on hand for the event. Photo by James Och

“When I was there as a soldier, I probably went only 20 miles from my station. I was in quite a secure area with a construction engineering battalion,” Mentel said. “On the trip, we did 1,200 to 1,500 miles on the tour bus. Very good tour guides took us to good points of interest. The compound where I was is totally gone; there are no military establishments left that were put up by us.”

Mike Holmen, of Burtrum, served in Vietnam in 1970-71. He’s always wanted to go back and see how the country is 50 years later.

“I really enjoyed it. I was a little bit surprised by the development there. The beautiful sandy beaches are becoming a vacation paradise,” he said.

The welcome home ceremony was not part of the original plan, but was suggested by Bruce Johnson, with the Swanville American Legion.

“He said we should really have a welcome home party,” Allen said. “Most of us realize that Vietnam vets were not welcomed home the way vets are now.”

Festivities were planned that included a parade held for the homecoming group and other Vietnam vets, Sunday, May 6. The parade ended in the parking lot of Red’s Irish Pub where a presentation was made by Allen. Every Vietnam-era vet in the area was invited to be part of the welcome home event and could ride one of the “Welcome Home” buses in the parade.

Area law enforcement and other groups were invited to participate. More than 500 people were on hand for the event to thank these vets. There was a lot of clapping and cheering as vets got off the busses. More than 40 vets were recognized during the program. The Swanville High School band played, and Pastor Kevin Zeller quoted John 15:13 during his invocation: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

James Och is a more recent 20-year Navy veteran who was on hand for the welcome back ceremony.

Trucks like this one from the Flensburg Fire Department, showed their support of both the veterans in attendance and those who are no longer with us. Contributed photo

“When we talk about guys coming back from all the conflicts – World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War I, Gulf War II – the Vietnam vets didn’t get a welcome,” Och said. “It was very moving to see them come off the bus, see their facial expressions. I could see it in their eyes, how thankful they were.”

Holmen reacted to the welcome home in ways he could not have predicted. His original return from Vietnam had not been a really negative experience. Although he was just pretty much ignored as a veteran (made worse by not having won the war), he had not been looking for anything more. When this welcome back unfolded, he was amazed and very moved – something he never expected

“I was the only one on the trip from Upsala. We stopped in Upsala for a few minutes on the way to Swanville, and there were some people there holding signs and clapping,” he said. “It was extremely emotional, actually being welcomed home. On the way from Upsala to Swanville, there were signs for us out in the fields along the way. Then as we were driving into town, there were so many people. I was in tears pretty much the whole time. I’m not sure why.”

Morrison County Sheriff and Marine veteran Shawn Larsen’s father was a Vietnam veteran, and he has heard stories about people not being welcomed home from their service.

“I was proud to be part of this experience,” said Larsen. “I saw smiles and tears as people got off the bus. We were honored to be asked to be part of that; it was a humbling experience.”

People wanting to donate to the next Vietnam trip may send checks to “Vietnam Trip Fund,” P.O. Box 253, Swanville, MN 56382.

For more information, contact Allen at (320) 232-7305.