It’s a sobering thought, but on the eve of Veterans Day, we think back about all the veterans who are no longer with us. 

World War II and even Korean war veterans are slipping away. And now, the Vietnam veterans are in their twilight years. 

‘Nam veteran Wes Halbakken died Oct. 23, just weeks after he joined a plane full of veterans for the Honor Flight to Washington D.C. Wes was one of 67 Vietnam-era guys on the journey; plus 26 of the Korea era—and one from World War II. 

From the general Pelican area, Jerry Stokka and Rudy Butenas joined Wes on the flight. 

I didn’t really know Wes, but he and a number of other Halbakkens have deep connections to the area—not to mention credentials as good athletes. Wes played football and wrestled, graduating from Pelican High in 1961. His brother Wally was a member of some of Pelican’s very notable basketball squads, back about 1959-60.

Wes enlisted in the Marines, survived Vietnam—barely, in a sense—and returned home to farm, southwest of Pelican. He was wounded in action earning the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Navy Commendation awards. 

“My biggest accomplishments were saving a wounded Marine and bringing him to safety, and then saving another from drowning,” wrote Wes.

Looking back on the Vietnam timeline, Wes would have been among the earlier U.S. boys in the conflict, which was simmering when he enlisted in 1965. He was wounded in 1967, when the action was nearing boiling point. 

I’ve been thinking about all those Vietnam guys (and gals). 

Oddly enough, I stumbled on a letter dated March 24, 1965, from the late North Dakota U.S. Senator Milton Young. Probably about the same time Wes Halbakken signed on with the Marines. 

“The decisions the U.S. will have to make in Vietnam could be the most important in our history,” wrote Young. 

While Young’s letter could be easily discarded as obscure history, I found it fascinating. In 1965; before the escalation of the war; before the widespread anti-war protests and social upheaval that would occur in the next few years; politicians like Young were wringing their hands, uncertain about what steps the U.S. should take. 

A North Dakota Republican, Young probably followed a strong Dakota political tradition of steering clear of foreign entanglements, and suspicion of the political establishment, east coast money influences, munitions manufacturers, and dubious big business motives. 

“It would be courting disaster to become involved in a jungle war with the hordes of Asiatic communists…in the most militarily untenable area in the entire world for us to fight,”

U.S. Senator
Milton Young, ND

Letter to constituents, March 1965

When the senator wrote the March 1965 letter, 300 U.S. soldiers had been killed. The death rate would rise dramatically in a matter of months. 

“The basic decision we must make is whether or not holding South Vietnam is of such importance as to warrant the cost in lives and dollars it would entail,” wrote Young. “The Vietnamese will have to win this war themselves…” 

So, the congressmen and senators debated and deliberated—for the next decade or so. 

Meanwhile, guys like Halbakken, Stokka, and Butenas found themselves trapesing through the jungles of Southeast Asia. 

More than 50,000 never made it back.