One of the most highly regarded annual events in Forest Lake built on its success Sunday, as a moving Vietnam Veterans Day program featured U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The guest speaker addressed the crowd of hundreds at the American Legion for more than 15 minutes, catering to the program’s MIA/POW focus with reflections of the 2009 trip to Vietnam she took with Sen. John McCain, who for more than five years was held prisoner after his plane was shot down in Hanoi in 1967.
Klobuchar said McCain has shared with the Senate intimate details of his time as a POW, including how he declined to be released so that another prisoner could go free.
Thousands were not so fortunate, Klobuchar noted.
“In the U.S. military, there’s a common saying: ‘Leave no man behind.’ But we know in fact there are 1,642 Americans who remain unaccounted for, who never returned home from Southeast Asia, including 33 Minnesotans,” she said. “Some 847 nationwide, and 15 Minnesotans, have been reported killed in action, though remains have never been returned. Others are presumed dead but have never been found.
“Our country must remain committed to bringing them all home, and I share the concerns of many of you as well as many members in the Senate that the Defense Department’s efforts to achieve this goal have not been quite adequate, and I’m committed to seeing what we can do to make this effort more effective so that we can bring closure to families who have lacked it for far too long.”
Klobuchar lauded the service of Vietnam veterans, including those with local ties such as Tom Tuccitto, Steven Dufeck and Wallace “Skip” Schmidt.
Tuccitto was a decorated member of Alpha Company who served as a sergeant and squad leader in the Mekong Delta in 1969. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Scholarship at Sunday’s program was given in memory of Tuccitto, who after the war was a well-known Scandia firefighter.
“It may have been fitting that Tom Anthony Tuccitto was born on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1948, in St. Paul, Minn.,” said Tuccitto’s wife, Pat, in presenting the scholarship to Forest Lake High School senior Taylor Angelo. “Veterans Day is a day that honors service and sacrifice, and Tom’s life was filled with both.”
Dufeck, a Stacy native, was wounded in Vietnam in 1968 but erroneously did not receive a Purple Heart. The former Post 125 member died in late 2012 of cancer. Upon his diagnosis, his family and Klobuchar launched an effort to get Dufeck the medal he earned. They posthumously bestowed it on him during a ceremony last July in St. Paul.
Schmidt’s service in Vietnam led to post-traumatic stress disorder, and he died by suicide soon after returning to America. He inspired his sister, Forest Lake’s Diane Finnemann, to advocate for the recognition of Vietnam Veterans Day. Her efforts succeeded, first in Forest Lake and then at the state Capitol.
Klobuchar’s speech focused on the need to continue to give Vietnam veterans the thanks they were slow to receive after the war.
“Service isn’t about when or where you fought, it’s that you answered the call when this country needed you, even at great personal risk and little personal reward,” she said. “That’s what Steven did, that’s what Tom did, that’s what Skip did, that’s what all our Vietnam veterans did.”
Senator discusses veterans issues
Sen. Amy Klobuchar said accepting an invitation to Forest Lake’s Vietnam Veterans Day program was an easy decision.
The two-term senator opened her comments at Sunday’s event with praise for event organizer Diane Finnemann, who paved the way for Vietnam Veterans Day to be declared at the state level.
“What Diane has done here … is an incredible thing,” Klobuchar said. “To be the first city to devote a day of recognition to our Vietnam vets, to think that one person could do this and get this started, all in the honor of her brother, Skip. That his life and his spirit lives on, and that you didn’t just take your grief and hold it in, that you used it in a way that was so positive for so many other veterans, is an incredible act of public service, so thank you so much for that, Diane.”
After her speech, Klobuchar discussed veterans issues with the Times. A broad Department of Veterans Affairs bill recently hit a snag in the Senate. It would have expanded benefits for former service members and repealed a military pension cut for future troops, but fell four votes shy of advancing after debate about waiving a VA spending limit.
Klobuchar, who supports the bill, said not all news from Capitol Hill has been gloomy for veterans.
“Overall, we have actually on a bipartisan basis increased our funding more than ever in history for health care, but we continue to have to do things,” she said. “We’ve got the backlog in claims, which is a problem which is getting slightly improved, and then we also have continuing funding issues, but we’re at a much better place than we were at the beginning of the Iraq war, and we just have to get these bills through.”
She also commended Minnesota employers for stepping up efforts to hire veterans.