OWATONNA — Eugene Handrahan was drafted into the U.S. Army in November 1967 during the thick of the Vietnam War.
Being sent off to combat wasn’t exactly what he wanted to do and for a brief moment he considered going to Canada, but that just wasn’t the way things were done in his Minnesota family.
Handrahan was deployed with the 25th Infantry to South Vietnam in the spring of 1968. Oct. 10 of that year was the last anyone heard from the sergeant.
More than 50 years later, a couple of strangers are doing whatever it takes to give the missing in action soldier the homecoming he never received.
John Cook was working at the recycling center in Owatonna when his cousin stopped by to drop a couple things off after purchasing an abandoned storage unit. Cook noticed a shadowbox off to the side and wandered over to investigate. At first glance, Cook instantly recognized the importance of the box’s contents.
“I wasn’t sure if my cousin knew specifically what they were, but I’m sure he knew they were military,” Cook said, describing the 10 medals that were pinned to a dated piece of framed felt. “I didn’t really give him the option of saying now. I just told him that I’m going to take care of these.”
As a retired serviceman with the Army National Guard and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Cook was able to easily identify the array of medals he had acquired: three marksmanship badges, a combat infantry badge, a National Defense medal, a Good Conduct medal, and two medals specific to the Vietnam War. The remaining two medals, however, is what compelled Cook to handle the items with the upmost respect and care.
The first medal to catch Cook’s eye was the Bronze Star, a decoration awarded to soldiers for either heroic achievement, heroic service, meritorious achievement, or meritorious service in a combat zone. This Bronze Star, however, was adorned with a small bronze “V” on the service ribbon — making the medal the fourth highest military decoration for valor.
“They don’t hand that out like candy,” Cook said about the medal. “The person who received this did something above and beyond what they were supposed to do.”
The second notable medal is likely one of the most recognizable decorations in American culture: the Purple Heart. A Purple Heart is awarded to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. military, and luckily it was the ticket Cook needed to know exactly who these honors belonged to.
On the back of every Purple Heart, the name of the recipient is inscribed. On this Purple Heart, the name was that of Sgt. Handrahan, the Minnesotan boy who went MIA while serving in Vietnam.
“It hit me like a baseball bat to the gut,” Cook admitted, adding that he never imagined that the owner of the medals would be someone from his home state whose body was never recovered. “To me this all of a sudden became more important, this was all his family has to remember him by. I knew then it was important to find someone in his family and get these back to them.”
With the help of a couple friends, Cook was able to locate Handrahan’s brother near the Twin Cities. He then learned that the storage unit the medals were located in had once belonged to the soldier’s deceased widow, but that the family was unaware of the medals existence.
“I think they’re kind of stunned,” Cook said. “Mostly I think they are stunned that somebody that he no connection to the family and obviously no connection to the sergeant would go to the extent I’ve gone to do get the medals back to them.”
Though the option of simply shipping the box to Handrahan’s family was certainly on the table, to Cook it wasn’t viable. The box had been beaten and worn out, hardly able to properly present such high honors for a missing soldier. Cook instead elected to bring the box to Haberman’s Picture Framing in Owatonna to see if they could help.
“We never know what is going to come in our how it will come together, but this one is special,” said Debbie Viera with Haberman’s. “This is very serious because these are very prized medals.”
Viera grew up with in the military lifestyle with a father who served in the U.S. Air Force. She eventually went on to marry a military man and raised two boys who each enlisted to serve in a different branch of the military. Viera not only understood the medals that Cook brought to her, but she felt an instant emotional connection to the man they represented.
“Vietnam veterans were never treated well when they came home and neither were their families,” Viera said as she described the new shadowbox she would be creating for Handrahan’s decorations. “For [Cook] to want to respect this Vietnam veteran who is a complete stranger to him… bless John for doing this for that family.”
Cook, too, recognizes the hardships that veterans of the Vietnam War faced when they first returned home, adding that though he was a young kid at the time he clearly remembers the “vile” treatment so many of them received.
“I don’t agree with what happened to them, so I feel like this could be a way to help right a wrong to an entire era of soldiers,” Cook said. “I’m not doing this for fame, fortune, or glory. I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do. I want to make sure that his memory is never forgotten.”
Once the new shadowbox is completed, Cook will deliver it to the Minnesota National Guard 34th Infantry Division based in Rosemount. Public affairs for the unit will then have a formal presentation of Handrahan’s medals to his brother in September.
“To me this is about the family having some kind of closure with this and being able to have these in their possession,” Cook explained. “For them to remember their brother by seeing these is more important to me than anything else.”
“Don’t forget our veterans,” he continued. “If you see a veteran, whether they served in World War II or the global War on Terrorism, just walk up and shake their hand, tell them thank you. People don’t realize how important it is for veterans to see that people care about them. I hope doing this helps all of us see that.”
A Go Fund Me for the new shadowbox can be found at gofundme.com/f/sfc-handrahan-medal-fund.
Students studying Spanish at Owatonna High School were able to practice their skills in Costa Rica during a June trip to the Central American country.
“Costa Rica is small, like a little gem of Central America, and it’s a very peaceful country,” said Nikki Snyder Roberts, a Spanish instructor at OHS who chaperoned this trip. “They put their money into education, health care,” and, increasingly, conservation.
Costa Rica’s stated goal is to eliminate single-use plastics in the next few years, and “they’re very into conservation there,” Snyder Roberts said. When Costa Ricans noticed the depletion of their forests, they “made a conscious effort to rebuild,” and “they’re very forward-thinking for a small country.”
Snyder Roberts actually has a long history with Costa Rica, because she did some of her student teaching there, and she’s returned a handful of times since, typically for class trips. She’s remained in contact with her original host family, too, and has been able to visit them every time she’s been in the country, including this summer.
Nearly a dozen OHS students — all of whom had been through at least level two of Spanish — made the journey, which was coordinated by Language and Friendship Incorporated, she said. When Snyder Roberts first visited the country, “tourism was nothing like it is now,” as it’s “grown immensely over the past 20 years.”
That shouldn’t be a surprise, since “you can get a real taste of everything” in Costa Rica, from volcanoes and beaches, to surfing and whitewater rafting, she said. “It’s nature to its fullest” and “heaven if you like the outdoors.”
“There are lots of hills and mountains, and (residents) live in the hills,” said Jalisa Mathews, who graduated from OHS this year and will enroll at Minnesota State University-Mankato this fall. “We had to walk a lot of hills.”
The OHS contingent departed June 11 and returned June 24, Snyder Roberts said. The first week was spent with host families in the village of Tobosi, located southeast of the capital of San Jose, while the second week was spent traveling throughout the nation, so students got “the best of both worlds.”
Especially with host families, “the kids are expected to interact using the best of their Spanish abilities,” she said. Fortunately, most students had already formed relationships with their host families, communicating well in advance of the trip through means such as email, text, and Skype.
Rising senior Mackenzie Mullenbach actually created a scrapbook in advance of her trip for her host family to explain herself, her life, and her own family, and spending a week with a host family was the high point of her time in Costa Rica, she said. Though Mullenbach was initially “nervous that my Spanish wouldn’t be good enough,” she tried to remember that the English abilities of her host family are no better — and, in fact, probably worse — than her Spanish skills.
“It was hard the first day — they talk really fast, and I had to ask them to slow down for me — but by the second day, it was really good,” she said. “I’m a person who likes to talk to people,” and “I was proud of myself” for communicating solely in Spanish for the duration of her host family stay.
For Mathews, the first couple of days were “nerve-racking,” because members of her host family spoke little-to-no English, but they “were so nice” that her stay with them became “my favorite part of the trip,” she said. They even accommodated her meatless diet with vegetarian options at every meal.
In fact, Mathews and Mullenbach will return to Costa Rica next summer to spend more time with their host families and explore more of the country, Mullenbach said. She also has a couple of “surprises” planned for her host family.
Dancing was paramount to the host family experience, and “I love dancing,” so she and Mathews plan to take classes this year in the Twin Cities, then show off their new-and-improved steps when they’re back in the country next summer, she said. She also plans to work even more diligently on her Spanish speaking, so they’ll hopefully recognize her linguistic improvement.
When individuals go out to purchase items, they do so in open-air markets, as opposed to enclosed grocery stories found in America, Mullenbach said. Food is often fresh, with pineapple, for example, being “so good compared to the U.S.”
The family Mathews stayed with has an avocado tree on their property, so they can make fresh guacamole, she said. Items like guacamole that “we have to pay a lot of money for” in America, “they can just take from their backyard.”
The environment accomplished wonders for her Spanish skills, Mathews said. Her comprehension of the language, especially, improved significantly, and “it’s nice to be bilingual.”
Of course, while technology was beneficial in that respect, it can also be “a challenge” to persuade students to put down their devices and “be in the moment,” even while in an exotic locale like Costa Rica, Snyder Roberts said. “It can be hard for kids to be separated from their devices, which is unfortunate.”
It’s “definitely a different way of life” in Costa Rica, where the motto is “pura vida,” which literally means “pure life” but also conveys a sense that “it’s all good,” and there are “no worries,” she said. “They live like that — it’s more about relationships — and we could all learn a little from that.”
“Everyone was really friendly” in Costa Rica, and families were extraordinarily close, Mullenbach seconded. They rarely dine out, with the vast preponderance of meals eaten together in the home at the table.
“They make time for family, and they’re always connected,” she said. Her family had no television in their living room, instead opting to play games and talk as a family unit.
At one point, Mullenbach and her host family went to the top of a mountain, where they played games, like soccer, she said. Then, at night, they gazed upon the city, which “was really pretty.”
She became so attached to them she couldn’t control her emotions when she had to leave her host family, she said. “I cried the day we left.”
Another difference between Costa Rica and the U.S. is the manner in which Costa Ricans drive, Mathews said with a chuckle. “People drive really crazy there.”
Fortunately, Mathews had her close friend, Mullenbach, with her on this trip, and they “helped each other” on numerous occasions, she said. “I got to enjoy everything with her.”
The matriarchs of their respective host families are sisters, so the families are neighbors, which meant Mathews and Mullenbach stayed next door to each other, the latter said. Mullenbach and Mathews were even gifted matching Costa Rican soccer federation shirts by their respective host families.
During the second week, the group’s chartered bus featured a naturalist guide, which was “very nice,” Snyder Roberts said. For example, Manuel Antonio National Park was “full of wildlife” — from monkeys and sloths to lizards and birds — but “we wouldn’t have seen half of (those animals) without our guide pointing them out.”
They also spent time at Poas, a crater volcano, which is in a cloud forest, but “we were lucky to see it” on a day when it wasn’t covered by clouds, she said. It is active, too, so “we had to wear hard hats.”
They saw another volcano — this one huge and cone-shaped — in the town of Fortuna, and they enjoyed a hot springs, she said. They then trekked to Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve and toured a coffee plantation, which was “interesting, interactive,” and offered plenty of samples.
The hot springs was definitely a highlight for Mathews, she said. “I felt rich for a minute.”
Students also zip-lined in a cloud forest with “the vast expanse of green” below them, and it was “a little spooky,” due to cloud cover, Snyder Roberts said. They were “just going into a white mist.”
“I loved zip-lining, and I always wanted to go first,” Mullenbach said. “It seems dangerous, but I like it.”
The group also had several close encounters with wildlife, she said. For example, “a sloth was living at our hotel right above the pool,” and, at one point, they watched a monkey “walk up to a family and take a sandwich.”
“Monkeys get really close to you, but you still have to be careful, because you don’t know” how they’ll react, Mathews said. “I did get to touch one, though.”
On one of their “beach days,” Mathews and others were enjoying breakfast when she spotted several large iguanas in close proximity, but “everyone was just sitting there like, ‘no big deal,’” she said. “I guess iguanas there are like rabbits here.”
“I got to hold a little lizard, or iguana, and I got to touch a monkey,” Mullenbach said. “We saw crabs, too, and they were huge and really red.”
“Areas of Costa Rica are all a little different,” Snyder Roberts said. “All the trips have been great.”
Snyder Roberts is planning another Spanish trip for the summer of 2020, this time to Peru, she said. It will be 12 days in June, including a five-day family stay and a trip to the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu.
Interested students who have completed at least two semesters of Spanish can contact Snyder Roberts for more information. The deadline for applications is Oct. 15.
This was Mullenbach’s first time in Costa Rica, and she left most of the adventure to be discovered, although she did some research prior to departing, she said. For example, she knew Catholicism is the dominant religion in Costa Rica, and “I was excited to go to church with my host family, because I’m Catholic.”
Mullenbach has four years of Spanish under her belt, and she’ll take more during her senior year for college credit, she said. She also plans to take Spanish in college at Winona State University.
Spanish fluency will benefit her in future travels, as well as in possible careers she’s interested in, like nursing, accounting, and business, she said. It even helps her in one of her current jobs, at The Blast, when she interacts with Spanish-speaking customers.
Mathews took four years of Spanish at OHS, and her mother wanted her to have a cultural immersion experience similar to that of her brother, who went to Germany, she said. Mathews had never been outside the U.S., but she’s thrilled she took this field trip, and she would “100%” recommend it to other students, because “it’s a really good time.”
OWATONNA — Three years ago, Jeana Snyder of Owatonna became a new mom. Sitting in the hospital bed and preparing to hold her baby boy for the first time, Snyder admits that she didn’t know much about breastfeeding.
“I didn’t really know a whole lot when I started,” she explained. “I just figured that it seemed like the best thing for him.”
Three years later, Snyder said that she would make the same decision to breastfeed her son Max all over again, adding that she was able to nurse him for 26 months.
Aug. 1 marked the beginning of World Breastfeeding Week and Steele County Public Health is celebrating the theme “Empower Parents, Enable Breastfeeding.” The week helps raise awareness of the importance of support in empowering a mother to successfully breastfeed and reach her goals. According to Public Health, breastfeeding is one of the best investments in saving lives and improving health. Support from family, employers, childcare, public health, and health providers all play critical roles in enabling a mother to breastfeed.
In Snyder’s case, she said she wasn’t inundated with information regarding breastfeeding during her pregnancy and that there was a lot that was unknown to her.
“I didn’t even know what the average amount of time to nurse a baby was, I thought six months was maybe normal,” Snyder said. “I kind of did some research and got a little information that it’s just a fact that this precious baby is perfect and you want to give it something 100% natural. Our bodies were made to sustain a life for a whole entire year and I thought that was pretty cool.”
Nine out of 10 Minnesota moms start breastfeeding, but three of those nine will stop breastfeeding before six months, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control Breastfeeding Report Card. Only about half of Minnesota infants are exclusively breastfed by three months.
For some moms, however, their babies are breastfed for an even shorter amount of time or not at all.
Owatonna mother Jacquie Grunklee currently spends a large majority of her days nursing her six-month-old twin boys, something that she says is beyond the demands of a full-time job. Though when she first became a mother eight years ago, Grunklee was doing the opposite.
“I didn’t breastfeed my first two children at all,” she admits. “I tried it and just got frustrated and kind of gave up. I thought breastfeeding should be easy and that it would just come naturally to me and the baby, but it’s a lot of work.”
Grunklee said that by the time she was pregnant with her third child she was determined to get the breastfeeding thing down. She utilized classes offered at the Owatonna Clinic that taught her different cues for when the baby would be hungry, positions to try while breastfeeding, and how to guide her baby to latch on more easily.
“It was painful and hurt and not natural feeling,” Grunklee said about her third attempt at breastfeeding. “The baby and I both really had to work for it, put I put my mind to it and just stuck to it.”
Grunklee, now a mother of five, said that the clinic classes were instrumental in helping her learn the ropes to breastfeeding, adding that she was offered extra help at the Owatonna Hospital as well by the consultants in the labor and delivery department.
Both Grunklee and Snyder, along with dozens of local mothers who reached out to the People’s Press, listed a number of benefits to breastfeeding. Among those reasons included the nutritional benefits, the bonding time between mother and child, the ease and accessibility, and the cost.
“This stuff is like liquid gold,” laughed Grunklee. “Formula is so expensive!”
“I feel like with all the options they give you and so many options for formula that it sounds easier — and I’m sure in some ways it is,” Snyder added. “But nursing is pretty easy, too. In the middle of the night you don’t have to get up and make a bottle and you don’t have to bring bottles with you out and about.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfeeding is the standard for infant feeding. It provides essential nutrients and antibodies that boost an infant’s immune system, providing protection from childhood illnesses. The academy also states that babies who are not breastfed are more likely to develop common childhood illnesses like ear infections and diarrhea as well as chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, asthma, and childhood obesity. For mothers, breastfeeding leads to lower rise of breast and ovarian cancers, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
“I know that my breast milk isn’t going to get recalled,” Grunklee offered as another perk to breastfeeding. “I know what I’m eating so I know what they’re getting.”
The two Owatonna mothers also agree that the more awareness that can be spread about breastfeeding the better, both for the benefit of new mothers and the public.
“More awareness would be really awesome for people to recognize how great for the baby breastfeeding is and how normal and natural it is,” Snyder said.
“I have heard that some people have had bad experiences breastfeeding in public,” Grunklee stated. “I have never heard one bad comment. I have people who say to me, ‘You are doing such a good job, keep it up!’ That’s the way it should be.”
Grunklee said she plans to pay that compliment forward and encourages the rest of us to follow suit.
For more information on breastfeeding, contact the Steele County Public Health WIC at 507-444-7660.