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Veterans (and soldiers to be) from across the region share what Memorial Day means to them
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Air Force Veteran Joel Olson, the activities director at Northfield High School, holds a photo of himself with fellow Air Force members. Today, Olson said his time in the military still gives him lessons of how to live. (Sam Wilmes/southernminn.com)

This photo of Olson was taken during his military service. (Photo courtesy of Joel Olson)


Air Force vet, Northfield AD calls for selflessness, patriotism

Sitting in his Northfield High School office on a recent morning, Air Force veteran Joel Olson vividly remembered the sights and sounds of his stint in the Middle East during the Desert Storm conflict three decades ago.

He recalled the sounds of the all-too-near deadly missiles, the injuries tended to and the dead he saw being processed as a medical administrator — frequent reminders of how fleeting life could be for those serving the country.

Despite those traumatic experiences, Olson said he is proud of his service and the help he could give his country.

“It’s pride — damn proud that I did it,” he added of his service. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

A 1987 FHS graduate, Olson left that summer for basic training in San Antonio, Texas, and then attended tech school in Wichita Falls, Texas. From there, he was stationed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for approximately 3½ years, before being deployed to Oman, a country of almost 5 million on the west coast of the Arabian Sea, in January 1991.

During his initial five-day deployment to Riyadh, Saudia Arabia, alarms and sirens would go off, alerting Olson and others of incoming Scud missiles. They would then watch the notoriously imprecise missiles land in the desert.

“That was weird, those missiles coming in,” Olson noted. “Just a lot of moving parts.”

He was then sent to serve in Oman until May 1991. During these months as a medical administrator, he handled records and coordinated schedules. A hospital mainly tasked with taking care of pilots, the facility Olson treated the injured before they were sent to Spain, England, Germany and other places for further treatment. 

Olson, who was staying in tents with others at the time, was aware that barracks were being bombed.

“There’s a danger, but I think you get trained in it,” he said. “I think anybody would tell you that you’re trained to do a job and you do the job knowing that that’s why you went in, that that could be a reality. I reflect on that a lot, every year.”

However, there were still reminders of home even during his deployment: He would frequently receive care packages and letters from friends and family members, and remembers watching the 1991 Super Bowl, seeing the large crowd showing their patriotism by waving flags and Whitney Houston singing the national anthem.

Even today, Olson, Northfield High School's activities director, is living the lessons he learned during war: The need to remain calm and understand that all situations, no matter how overwhelming they seem, are only temporary.

“Once you’ve been through that, everything else is kind of not such a big deal.”

Today, Olson is a member of the VFW and Legion. This Memorial Day, he’s calling on people to learn the lesson he was given during his service: That “freedom is not free,” and love can be shown by sacrificing selfish needs to care for those around them.

“There are people that are out there putting their lives on the line, and whether it’s military or law enforcement,” he noted. “We see how fragile that is, and the hope I would have is that whether you serve in the military or serve in the Peace Corps … I would like to see that service be something that everybody would take up, and give of yourself for the benefit of others, and that’s one of the things I kind of live by. And I think that’s what love is: Sacrificing your needs for those around you.”

— Sam Wilmes




Brothers, sons of veteran, enter Army National Guard together 

The word “patriotism” means different things to different people, but for two Faribault brothers, it’s quite simple.

“I guess it’s being prideful for the country you live in, waving the flag and celebrating the Fourth of July,” said Tyler Boyd, Faribault High School senior.

Said his brother, FHS senior Mark John Paul Abayon: “I think it’s just your support for your country.”

Boyd and Abayon both plan to join the U.S. Army National Guard after high school. Both leave for boot camp in Fort Benning, Georgia, this summer, Boyd on June 28 and Abayon July 6.

“I’d say we influenced each other a little bit,” said Boyd.

On why he chose to join the army, Abayon said, “I kind of want to see for myself how the Army operates and give my opinions on the Army. I heard from some people they love the Army and others hate the Army, and I wanted to decide for myself ….”

Said Boyd: “I joined for the adventure. I get to go to college and be in the military at the same time for the National Guard.”

Abayon also has plans to go to college after boot camp but hasn’t yet decided on a field of study.

“I’m pretty sure I’m going to do HVAC or nursing, and HVAC would be in Mankato,” he said.

Said Boyd: “My plans for after boot camp are to go to (Minnesota State University, Mankato) in the spring of 2022 and major in mechanical engineering.”

One veteran who served as a role model for these siblings is their father, Michael Boyd, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant who has been stationed throughout the country for over a decade. He now owns and operates Michael B. Photography, which specializes in digital sports photography.

As Memorial Day approaches, Tyler Boyd said the importance of the national holiday is to celebrate the veterans who many may not know because of all the different wars, and because they died

“I think it’s just an important day for those who have died and remembering them,” Abayon added.

— Misty Schwab

Gale West, of Kenyon, served during the Korean War from 1950-1952. (Photo courtesy of Gale West)

Gale and his wife Gladys West stand by the grave of one of Gale’s relatives, Russell S West in France. (Photo courtesy of Gale West)


Taking the time to thank all who served

For Gale West, when it comes to patriotism and the American flag, he is proud to show it.

Graduating from Litchfield High School, West and his late wife Gladys moved to Kenyon in 2006 to be closer to their five children.

West, a Korean War veteran, served from 1950 to 1952. He was drafted at the age of 22, and was inducted and discharged in Fort Riley, Kansas.

After finishing basic training, West said the whole company went to Korea, except seven, including himself. The rest of the soldiers were sent back to school. But it was there where West learned about all of the weapons the aAmy used, along with 40 other soldiers.

It was their job to test the trainees after they finished basic training to ensure they knew how to handle the specific weapons soldiers used, like landmines, heavy machine guns and bazookas, along with first aid. Above all, the goal was to give the trainees general knowledge in all of those areas.

Once they were finished training and testing the new group of soldiers, they were then handed to the company commander. Though he never was in combat in Korea, West hopes that his work helped those who did go oversees.

"When you get into combat, you never know when you have to use a mortar or undo a landmine, so they had some familiarity with all of it," West added.

Serving as a member of the American Legion for 30 plus years, West said the American flag means a lot to him.

"I'm real strong in patriotism, and wholeheartedly believe in what they are doing in Kenyon to support veterans," West said.

He especially appreciates the Kenyon Veterans Memorial Park that was dedicated in 2017. West proudly added that his children got together to include his name on one of the walls.

For West, Memorial Day means taking time to thank all those who gave their lives for the country.

                                                                                       — Michelle Vlasak


Hospital-produced videos meant to advance vaccination efforts
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Though preventative health measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 are ending as more Minnesotans become vaccinated, polls show a continuing portion of the population is choosing not to be inoculated.

With that in mind, Northfield Hospital & Clinics is producing a series of videos featuring personal testimonials intended to persuade those who are hesitant to receive the vaccine and further minimize COVID-19 infections.

NH+C Director of Communications Betsy Spethmann noted the health system wants to provide information and reassure those hesitant about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. The series of 10 videos are being rolled out over the coming weeks (one to two per week). All feature different people, providers and staff, including a paramedic and two nurses. They describe the positive impacts the vaccines had on them. Some accounts include individuals who have either contracted COVID-19 or lost someone to the virus. The videos are being posted on the NH+C website and social media pages.

Spethmann noted the personal accounts are crucial in personalizing the effectiveness of the vaccines and possibly helping the community embrace the vaccines in ways that medical knowledge can’t.

“It’s a very powerful collection of experiences,” Spethmann said.

According to a recent Gallup survey, the main reason Americans who plan not to be vaccinated give is their preference to wait and confirm it is safe (24%), doubting that the health effects from the disease would be serious if they contracted it (21%). According to the poll, another 17% are concerned about the speed with which the vaccine was developed and 16% said they did not trust vaccines in general.

NH+C President/CEO Steve Underdahl said the videos come as the vaccination process shifts and supplies outpace demand. He noted most people who were eager to receive vaccines have already done so. For those who have not been vaccinated, Underdahl said outreach includes an emphasis on making the process comfortable for those who are hesitant or wary about incurring travel expenses in getting the shots.

Still, he's aware that attempts to persuade those who don’t trust vaccines are more difficult. Underdahl say that makes him anxious — that those who are not vaccinated will be exposed to the virus as more people stop wearing masks and social distancing. Also, he said he wants the virus to have little chance to be transmitted, and that vaccinations are a key component of that process. Underdahl noted those who have already been infected with the virus should still to be vaccinated but will want to check with their doctor first.

Even with those concerns, Underdahl said there is optimism that the virus will become less prevalent in the months ahead. As of Thursday, Northfield Hospital & Clinics had no COVID-19 patients over the previous five days.

Archer House deemed a total loss
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The insurance company covering the historic Archer House River Inn has deemed it a total loss following a devastating November blaze.

The findings, released this week by Auto Owners Firm, were announced Friday by Rebound Enterprises Managing Partner and Chairman of the Board Brett Reese. Reese noted the findings, along with the expected high cost of repairing the structure, make reconstruction of the Archer House impossible. Future site options reportedly include restoration, replacing the building or redevelopment. 

Reese has said the owners are interested in recognizing the role the Archer House played in Northfield and carrying a new structure forward with “charm, character,” an option he speculated could include a hotel, restaurant or apartments and condominiums.

The announcement came one week after the front-center portion of the structure’s portico collapsed, approximately six months following the Nov. 12 fire that destroyed the building. Building owners had expressed concern that delays in the insurance process were causing the structure to deteriorate. 

From the time of the fire until the middle of March, the primary focus of activity on the site was the ongoing investigation of the cause and origin of the fire. Owners regained control of the building over four months after the fire.

"Since the fire, the building continued to deteriorate and cause safety concerns," the release states. "Further damage did occur during the investigation as particular items needed to be removed via demolition of the restaurant area where the fire initially began, and where the most recent collapse of the middle section onto the porch occurred."

Reese noted he recently entered the structure and saw it was “in terrible shape,” with extensive mold, water, smoke and structural damage. A previous evaluation had reportedly shown the chances for rebuilding were “very negative,” he said. 

The iconic building, built along the east bank of the Cannon River, sustained heavy smoke and water damage throughout the structure during the Nov. 12 fire, which reportedly started in a hood over the smoker at one of the Inn’s restaurants, Smoqehouse. Fire crews reportedly used more than 2 million gallons of water to combat the blaze over the course of nearly 24 hours. Some places, especially the first-floor Smoqehouse and the four levels directly above it, were completely damaged. In other spots, the damage wasn’t as extensive.

Reese, who has been an Archer House owner since 1997, said he knows that it will be impossible to completely replace the 143 years of history the building provided and its downtown presence.

“It’s just very sad,” he added.