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Viewpoint: Honoring our local veterans -- stories of service and sacrifice

By Joe Atkins, Dakota County Commissioner, District 4

Again this year, we have the great honor in Dakota County of hosting Minnesota's official Veterans Day program, which will occur at 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Veterans Memorial Community Center in Inver Grove Heights.

It has been a privilege for us to have the official program here in Dakota County for well over a decade now.

While we will honor veterans from across Minnesota at the official ceremony, I want to take time to particularly recognize our local vets — both active and retired, young and old, those still with us, and those who have passed away.

While many have heard me tell of some of our local veterans over the years, their stories bear repeating, and, like the lives and contributions of all our veterans, their service and sacrifice should be remembered.

Dick Carroll of Eagan was in his early 20s flying bombing missions over Nazi targets when he was shot down over Budapest on July 2, 1944. After parachuting out, Lt. Carroll was immediately shot. The bullet lodged in his heart. Carroll suffered five days of high fever, followed by 11 months as a prisoner of war — all the while with the bullet still in his heart. His parents had received notice of his dire wound, taking it to mean their son was dead. After his captors surrendered in 1945, Carroll said his parents received 31 postcards announcing that their son was alive and well. "That was a wonderful Christmas present for my dad and mother," Carroll told WCCO in a 2011 interview.

Following his military service, Carroll spent his life serving veterans as a civilian employee of the military. The bullet remained in his heart for the rest of his life, never causing any harm. He died just before Christmas last year, at the age of 97.

Like Dick Carroll, Al Millinczek was a World War II veteran. Al passed away in 2008 at the age of 94. A stalwart in American Legion Post 424, Al provided decades of service to the Inver Grove Heights community long after his time in the armed forces came to an end. Without Al's commitment, leadership and efforts — and that of his fellow American Legion members, I can attest that the Inver Grove Heights Veterans Memorial Community Center would not exist today. I was mayor of Inver Grove Heights when the facility was built, and some of my earliest and most productive discussions about the Veterans Memorial Community Center took place around Al's kitchen table.

It is only fitting that Minnesota's official Veterans Day program now takes place in a building that would not exist had it not been for the efforts of local veterans.

Like Al Millinczek and Dick Carroll, 21-year-old Army Ranger Benjamin Kopp from Rosemount made a difference in the lives of others. However, Cpl. Kopp never got the chance to come back and serve the way Al and Dick did, because Ben made the ultimate sacrifice. He was wounded by a sniper in Afghanistan and did not survive his injuries. Before he passed, Ben saved several of his fellow soldiers when his regiment came under fire by insurgents in Afghanistan in July 2009.

Ben's memory and his service continue to this day; he saved or improved the lives of scores of people by being an organ donor, donating bone, skin, tissue and all his organs.

In recognition of Ben's service, the first bridge named after a fallen soldier in Minnesota is now flanked with signs to remind all who drive across of the sacrifice of Cpl. Benjamin Kopp.

Everyone is invited to the Official State Veterans Day program at 10 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Veterans Memorial Community, as we honor and remember these and other veterans.

If you are able, consider doing more. For Dick, support the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon campaign, an effort that supports our returning vets and their families. For Al, volunteer your time toward something important to you here in town. For Ben, consider becoming an organ donor.

Regardless of what you do, please take some time to remember the service and sacrifice of Dick, Al and Ben, as well as their families, and all the veterans their stories represent. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers, not just on Veterans Day, but throughout the year.

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