Vietnam Moving Wall visits Audubon, public pays tribute to its fallen
It may be merely a portable replica of the real thing, but the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall is still an awe-inspiring sight.
Panels containing the names of over 58,000 people who were killed in action, missing in action and taken as prisoners of war during the Vietnam War stretched from one end of the Audubon City Park to the other on Saturday morning.
"We're here today to say thank you and pay tribute to the people whose names are on this wall," said John Ronning, president of the Agassiz Chapter of the Wind & Fire Motorcycle Club, which sponsored the wall's four-day stop in Audubon this past week.
The Moving Wall is so named because it is a portable exhibit, visiting hundreds of communities across the U.S. each year.
But it is moving for another reason, as Ronning pointed out -- the 58,272 names that are etched on its surface.
Audubon Mayor Jeff Quam also spoke at the opening ceremony for the exhibit on Saturday.
Though he's "a little too young" to remember Vietnam himself, Quam said, he has many friends and family members who do.
Quam also addressed the Vietnam veterans in the crowd, noting, "I've nothing to say to you but thank you for your service."
"It's a moving, moving tribute," he added.
But it was left to Vietnam War veteran, retired Lake Park-Audubon teacher and former high school wrestling coach Terry Teiken to deliver the most moving words of all.
As he noted at the start of his presentation, "I'm standing in front of a wall where I easily could have been one of the names on it."
As a teenager who was eager to leave his family's rural Ogema farm and see the world, Teiken said, he had once asked his former Waubun High School English teacher about one of their class assignments, reading "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner."
"Mr. Hanson, when are we ever going to need to know this stuff?" the young Teiken asked his teacher, who responded, "Terry Teiken, you don't know what the real world is!"
At the conclusion of his presentation, Teiken noted, "I still don't know."
But what he does know, he added, is that "I'm one of the lucky ones."
Nevertheless, Teiken remains haunted to this day by memories of his experiences, some of which he shared on Saturday.
He recalls one day early in his military tour, riding as a door gunner in a helicopter over the highlands of south Vietnam, "thinking to myself, this might be a fairly uneventful tour of duty."
Unfortunately, that proved to be a premature thought, as moments later he and the other occupants of the helicopter were startled by an object moving rapidly toward them. Not knowing what it was, the green soldiers only later realized that it was a surface-to-air-missile that had narrowly missed striking their aircraft.
It was the start of a fierce battle that Teiken luckily survived unscathed. He remembered thinking, "this was the ultimate game, this was life on the edge... and I asked myself, 'is this the real world?'"
One day, while out on patrol, Teiken said his team walked into an ambush so vicious that he heard someone calling over the radio, "broken arrow, broken arrow, broken arrow!"
As he related to a spellbound audience in Audubon, the term "broken arrow" meant that an American combat unit was in danger of being overrun, and that any available support aircraft should come immediately to the battalion's defense.
"The situation was grim," Teiken admitted.
Fortunately, something happened not long after that "made me believe in guardian angels," he added.
Suddenly, "out of nowhere," a squadron of Air Force 105's loaded with heavy napalm appeared.
In that moment, Teiken said, no one cared what color the skin of those soldiers was, what religion they practiced, whether they were gay or straight -- "they were Americans, and they were there to help."
The wall of fire created by that napalm helped Teiken's unit and others to escape -- though the ones caught on the other side of that firewall were not so lucky, he added, and the escaping soldiers could hear what was happening to their comrades as they were forced to flee the scene.
But the memory that continues to haunt him most, Teiken said -- and live on in his nightmares -- is the sight of the refugees begging for food, digging through garbage, fighting with the rats for every scrap of food they could find on the streets of Saigon.
"Of all the things that happened over there, that's the memory that time won't erase," he said.
When he returned to the United States, Teiken said, he remembered how the crew of the TWA flight the soldiers took home refused to serve them the same meal that the other passengers got, because of their reduced fare status -- though they were given complimentary water.
When he heard many years later about TWA's financial woes, Teiken admitted that he didn't exactly shed a tear.
After arriving back home in Minnesota, Teiken found that the family farm that had once been a place he couldn't escape fast enough as a child, had become a haven where he could heal from his war wounds, mental, emotional and physical.
"It was my shelter, my cocoon -- things made sense there," he said.
Eventually, however, he recovered, and was able to go back to school and get his teaching degree.
At age 26, he arrived in Lake Park to begin a teaching career that would span 34 years, and included a nomination for Minnesota Teacher of the Year.
"For the past 34 years, I've been very proud to call Lake Park-Audubon my professional home," he said.
After the ceremony, Teiken elaborated a little bit more about what it was like to come back home after his tour in Vietnam.
"It was a tough time for us veterans," he said. "We didn't get parades, or even a welcome home. We kind of came in through the back door."
That's why the original Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., and the portable one that visited Audubon this past week, bring such emotional reactions for many.
"Every time you see it, it makes you pause," Teiken said. "There are so many names -- and they were all so young."
It's also a bit surreal for him to realize that his name could easily have been on that wall with them.
"We were all just kids," he said. "I feel so honored to have been here today, speaking for so many who have served."
Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.