by Frank Lee
A pair of Vietnam veterans from central Minnesota who served their country were welcomed home in different ways shortly after the war in Southeast Asia.
Dick McConnell was a dairy farmer in Rice where he resides. The 66-year-old was drafted in 1968 and was treated “pretty good” by Americans after his stint in the U.S. Army.
“In this area, there were a lot of veterans who had served in World War II and had come back from Vietnam already,” said McConnell, who was born and raised in St. Cloud.
The Rev. LeRoy Kieke of Sauk Rapids said he was “treated badly” when he returned to the United States after twice traveling to Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 as part of the Army.
“I felt proud coming home with my uniform and medals and everything, and even though I wasn’t literally spit on, I was shoved by people,” Kieke said of the controversial war.
More than 303,000 people from the United States were wounded during the Cold War conflict, including Kieke, who runs a veterans-outreach ministry called Warmride Ministry.
“I came out with chemical dependency, post-traumatic stress disorder and seizure disorder,” Kieke said of the toll the Vietnam War took on his health and well-being.
Kieke will be in the Veterans’ Day parade and social on Sunday – and at the Veterans Day ceremony on Wednesday – on the campus of the St. Cloud VA Health Care System.
Kieke said of how he felt after his mistreatment by Americans upon his return from Vietnam and his use of narcotics: “I felt very disappointed, and I felt very frustrated.”
But the 65-year-old husband and father who was born in St. Cloud believes times have changed and Vietnam veterans like himself are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
“I think it’s much better now; I participate in several color guards, and so I’m in a lot of parades, and we get a lot of positive feedback now,” Kieke said.
“I think it started with the Iraq-Afghanistan veterans where people finally realized it doesn’t matter if you are for or against a war, you have to support the troops.”
Kieke said he believes it was an honor for him to serve his country and said he will always feel the pride that goes along with it. He is involved with 10 local veterans groups.
“When you got overseas, you met a lot of people and you lost some good friends,” McConnell said of the Vietnam War, which included almost 58,000 killed from the United States.
McConnell, a husband and father who was part of the Army infantry, said American servicemen did what they had to do to survive during the Vietnam War.
“You’ll never forget it,” McConnell said of his time in the military and how he attends veteran-related reunions, and of his participation in Sunday’s parade at the St. Cloud VA.
Kieke said, “I have a sign in my backyard . . . and at the top it says, ‘Land of the free,’ and then below it ‘because of the brave,’ and that’s my exact sentiment.”