Organizations that help vets, families recognized

For the past 16 years, an organization of people who live and work in the communities of Blaine, Ham Lake or Spring Lake Park have been recognizing people who make a difference in these communities.

Representatives from each group honored for their civic accomplishments pose for a photo after the Creating Communities Heroes Banquet.Photo by Eric Hagen
Representatives from each group honored for their civic accomplishments pose for a photo after the Creating Communities Heroes Banquet.Photo by Eric Hagen

Creating Communities April 23 recognized Blaine’s Sgt. John Rice VFW Post 6316 color guard, ladies’ and men’s auxiliaries, the Minnesota Patriot Ride, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon groups in Blaine and Spring Lake Park and Tom Smith of St. Francis for helping veterans, current military service members and their families.

Keynote speaker John Kriesel lost two friends and both his legs when the Humvee he was in ran over 200 pounds of plastic explosives packed into propane tanks while they were checking on an unmanned drone report of suspicious activity in Iraq Dec. 6, 2006.

Kriesel said people like Deb and Jeff Good from the Minnesota Patriot Ride who gave John and his wife Katie a great Valentine’s Day in 2007 while he was still at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., and all others who volunteer to help veterans is what makes Minnesota and the United States the best state and country to live in.

Despite the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the threats to America’s freedoms from other areas of the world, citizens still volunteer because of this support, Kriesel said.

The Sgt. John Rice VFW Post 6316 color guard presented the colors and were later recognized as one of the community hero groups.Photo by Eric Hagen
The Sgt. John Rice VFW Post 6316 color guard presented the colors and were later recognized as one of the community hero groups.Photo by Eric Hagen

“As long as you all keep making this a great community, great state and great nation, there’s always going to be people that go volunteer to help fight,” he said.

Sgt. John Rice VFW represented well

About 20 from the Sgt. John Rice VFW ladies’ auxiliary filled the stage of BeBop Sports Bar’s Elegance Room when their group was being recognized. The group has 252 members.

“We don’t expect recognition. It’s just something we do for our veterans, but it is nice to be honored,” said Mary Lou Michels, president of the ladies’ auxiliary.

According to Michels and other members, the women’s auxiliary has a sewing club to make lap robes, twin size bed quilts, laundry bags, pillow cases, mittens, hats and much more. They prepare meals for funeral lunches, hold a bake sale for cancer patients, visit nursing homes and hospitals, visit the Eagles Nest home in Sauk Centre that helps veterans reintegrate to society after being in a war zone, and host blood drives.

The Sgt. John Rice color guard leads off the Blaine Blazin’ 4th of July parade every year and present the colors at all Blaine High School home football games. They present the colors, fold the flag and present it to a family member at funerals where they also do a 12-gun salute.

“We’re available to the community, any time and any place for presenting the colors. We’re proud to do it,” said Gary Exley, who will become the Post 6316 commander May 7. “There is a ritual. There is a procedure to follow, and we take pride in the fact that we do it the right way.”

The men’s auxiliary of the Sgt. John Rice VFW Post has various initiatives to support veterans and their families and honor those who have passed. They set up events to raise money for the VFW and the Veteran’s Relief Fund.

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon

Spring Lake Park in September 2011 and Blaine in May 2012 were officially proclaimed as Yellow Ribbon communities.

Yellow ribbons symbolize support for America’s troops, but Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is a program organized by the Minnesota National Guard that goes beyond offering moral support.

Spring Lake Park Councilmember and former mayor Bob Nelson talked about how Beyond the Yellow Ribbon is truly a community-wide effort. Spring Lake Park School District 16 teachers have helped students of deployed parents cope during these difficult times. The Lee Carlson Center for Mental Health and Well-Being’s mission is important to some veterans who have trouble reintegrating after coming back home.

The Kraus Hartig VFW Post 6587, the police department and fire departments and churches are a few other groups that Nelson mentioned.

Blaine Police Officer Cory Schmidt was in the National Guard for eight years and deployed with the Red Bulls to Iraq from 2009 to 2010. He said listening to Kriesel brought back a lot of memories of being in Iraq and how he was always thinking about how his wife was doing at home.

They now have a seven-month-old son and he can understand how soldiers must feel when they are deployed and thinking of their family at home. Knowing somebody is watching out for them makes a huge difference.

Blaine Yellow Ribbon volunteers have helped families of deployed soldiers with yard work, cooking meals, building a deck, welcoming troops home, informing them and their families about how the community can help.

Rebecca Olson, assistant to the Blaine city manager and coordinator of Blaine’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon program, said when Blaine was approached two years ago to develop this network, they were informed that Blaine has one of the highest concentration of National Guard members in the state. It was clear to all people involved in going through the lengthy process to become a Yellow Ribbon community that this is a very important mission.

“By far this has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had the pleasure to be a part of,” Olson said.

Patriot Ride

The Minnesota Patriot Guard is the group of motorcyclists who escort buses of troops being deployed or coming home, lead funeral processions or stand at attention on the side of the road with the United States flag.

Deb and Jeff Good of Ham Lake joined the Patriot Guard in June 2006 when they heard that protestors were going to be showing at the funeral of Sgt. Brent Koch of Morgan, Minn.

The inaugural ride had about 100 bikers. It quickly grew to a few thousand bikers every year and countless other supporters. It has raised about $700,000 over the first seven years, said Deb and Jeff, who are now senior ride captains for the entire metro area. The proceeds are split between the Patriot Guard and the Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund.

Retired Gen. John Vessey, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from June 1982 to September 1985, will be a featured speaker at the June 15 ride, which starts and ends at Ham Lake Lions Park. A World War II veteran that spent time in a machine gun turret and was shot down by the Japanese will also share his story.

Tom “Smitty” Smith

Smith, a St. Francis resident, has organized an annual golf tournament since 2006 because he and a buddy wanted to do something to support the troops. Both are veterans. Smith flew and repaired helicopters for the U.S. Army and retired 24 years ago.

This year’s tournament at The Ponds Golf Course, 2881 229th Ave. N.W., in St. Francis is Saturday, June 22. Call 763-753-1100 for more information.

The Support the Troops movement has been able to help seven families so far from Big Lake to Lakeville to St. Paul, for example, with various things.

A woman from Lakeville whose husband had just been deployed had her trailer knocked off its foundation from a tornado. The organization wrote a $1,700 check to help this lady out.

A St. Francis man had to reduce his bartending hours and he lost his house because of medical issues. They donated $1,000 to him.

The group donated $5,000 to the Armed Forces Services Center at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, which has a lounge and sleeping accommodations for veterans, service members and families who are stuck at the airport because of a delayed flight.

A Forest Lake woman had inherited Agent Orange from her mother, who was a combat medic in Vietnam. She had to have open heart surgery, he believes, when she was four years old. She is now 24 years old and has four sons of her own. The last he heard, she was being treated for pancreatic cancer. They donated $3,000 to help with her medical bills.

Eric Hagen is at [email protected]