If these boots could talk

Fergus Falls honors veterans by displaying their boots

Military boots lined up by the Fergus Falls, Minn., Veterans Home. The boots were worn by veterans serving in different wars. Photo by Carol Stender

If only those boots could talk.

The 15 pairs of military boots, placed along the Fergus Falls, Minn., Veterans Home’s cul de sac, had traveled in some pretty tough spots. Some were worn by soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam. Others traversed the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. One pair was worn at the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Each pair was donated either by a veteran or by family and friends for the Boots on the Ground Veterans Motorcycle Run in September.

The Fun Run is an annual fundraiser for the Fergus Falls Veterans Home’s recreation department. This year event organizers added the boots display to remember and honor soldiers. While the number of boots donated was small, event co-chairs Craig Farmer and Darcy Soland hope the numbers grow as more veterans and families become informed about the display.

“I envision having boots two or three deep lining both sides of the driveway going into the Veterans Home,” Craig said.

The display is not just about the boots. It’s the stories that go with them. One pair belonged to Thomas Young who served 42 years in the Army. He was deployed to Vietnam in 1965, part of the 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Unit, and fought in the Battle of la Drang which was dramatized in the movie, We Were Soldiers.

Thomas Young and his son, Chad, show Thomas’ military boots he donated for Boots on the Ground. Thomas is a 40-plus year Army veteran who served in Vietnam. Photo by Carol Stender

He had it pretty hard when he returned from Vietnam, he said.

“They didn’t know about post-traumatic stress syndrome then,” Thomas said. “The Vietnam vets were ‘sick-o’s. When I had anxiety, I would go to the dump at nights and shoot rats. I had to go hunting and fishing to focus on things I liked to do. Then it would just pass. No one knew what it was.”

It was a different experience returning from Vietnam compared to other wars, he added.

“We were kind of shunned for many years until Iraq came about,” he said. “They had a better understanding of what PTSD and anxiety was about with the Iraqi vets. That helped all the veterans out.”

Thomas moved to Otter Tail County to be close to his son, Chad, who works in Pelican Rapids. Thomas utilizes the Veterans Home’s clinic for his medical needs and visits fellow veterans at the home.

“I come here to meet other vets,” he said. “You get to feel the camaraderie of others who experienced the same thing you did. Some people have never experienced combat, and they don’t have any understanding what that service means. At times it gets to be emotional. That’s probably why I don’t talk about it much.”

During his four decades of military service, Thomas gathered quite the collection of combat boots. Chad asked him about the mass of footwear.

“I asked him, ‘What are going to do with all these boots?’” Chad said.

He suggested donating a pair to Boots on the Ground. Thomas concurred.

“I just thought it was a really cool idea,” the elder Young said. “Once this grows into what we hope it can be, it will be a huge statement to the veterans.”

Chad may be next to donate some boots. Like his father, Chad joined the military. Just three days after his high school graduation, he went to Great Lakes “A” school and became an Aviation Storekeeper 3rd Class.

“I didn’t want to farm, and I didn’t want to go to school,” he said of his decision. Chad served four years in active duty and three in the reserves.

He served during the first Gulf War and was stationed in Guam. He worked in civil service at the same base and worked for the state department as a chauffeur for the counsel general of Japan in Guam.

The base was one of several victims of the 1994 base closures. Chad moved to the Twin Cities to be near his parents and moved again in 2007 to Pelican Rapids when his job transferred to the west central Minnesota community.

Although his parents divorced when Chad was young, he has been reconnecting with his father, who also moved to Otter Tail County. They enjoy motorcycling and participating in events like the Boots on the Ground Fun Run.

Recently the pair took part in a ride in Missouri.

“For me it was about the ride, and for him it was being with his friends,” Chad said. “But I could sit back, and they would start talking about the things that had happened to them. “Just to hear him talk about those stories. I would sit back and take it in.”

Military service stories of other boots were equally compelling from those worn during Desert Storm to a pair worn by Mitch Davis’ father, a World War II Pearl Harbor attack survivor.

“When we learned about the project, we jumped on board,” he said.

As the boots were placed around the cul de sac, a small American flag was also put through the laces.

Residents of the nursing home congregated around the grounds looking at the motorcycles and the boot display. After a brief ceremony, the motorcyclists took off, each one driving around the cul de sac to wave at the veterans and show them their bikes.

“They just love this,” said Darcy who’s also a recreation assistant at the Veterans Home.

There were 150 motorcycles registered for the event who raised more than $6,000 for the Veterans Home’s recreation department. The money will defray expenses for special outings, including trips to the Fargo Air Show, sporting events and dinner at the local VFW and American Legion.

“Some of these guys don’t have family who live nearby,” Darcy said. “The outings and events like this are so important to them.”

The event has seen some changes over its existence. Todd Peterson, from Underwood, spearheaded it for 10 years. It was named the POW-MIA Motorcycle Run. He turned the reins over to Darcy and Craig who talked to Craig’s friend, Eric Marts, about the event. Marts, who hosts Heroes from the Heartland on WDAY, suggested a name change to Boots on the Ground. The name stuck.

Out of those discussions came the idea for the boots display.

No matter what changes the event has experienced, one thing has remained constant from the start: It’s all geared to support and honor the veterans who’ve served their country.

#BootsontheGround #VeteransMotorcycleRun

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