Vietnam veteran Rick Biehn

Vietnam veteran Rick Biehn, a Purple Heart recipient, was the keynote speaker at Thursday’s Vietnam War Day program at the St. Peter American Legion Post #37. (Dana Melius/St. Peter Herald)

Slowly, year after year, the stories of area Vietnam veterans are being told.

Thursday, it was Rick Biehn's turn. The U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient never before imagined telling his personal war story. Those memories remain, painful, vivid.

Then Biehn heard last year's Vietnam Veterans Day speaker, Dick Holz, describe his journey through the horrors of war, and it inspired him.

"I'll be your speaker next year," Biehn told members of the Vietnam Ear Last Man Club of St. Peter after the 2017 recognition program.

Holz had said the same thing. His decision to speak last year came after listening to the 2016 speaker, Stu McKee of Cleveland. Holz had summed up the war in one word: bizarre. But he told that crowd in the St. Peter Community Center that if McKee could muster up "quite the harrowing speech of his experience in Vietnam," so could he.

Biehn told his story of pain and fear to a Thursday evening crowd at the St. Peter American Legion Post #37. 

Fifty years ago, "I was going to Vietnam to be an infrantryman," Biehn said. Just 20 years old, "you had no idea what to expect." 

After basic training, he eventually went to an Oakland, California, base and then on to Bien Hoa, Vietnam. Early on, "we had a bunch of casualties." Early "search and destroy missions" followed.

"I won't tell you what we did," Biehn said. "But we did what we had to do, or I wouldn't be here today."

Methodically, looking into the crowd from time to time, he spoke of the realities of war.

"Here I was a 20-year-old kid," he said. "Scared as hell? You damn right I was."

And on one mission in which he wasn't supposed to go — he "volunteered" as a radio man after two others couldn't make it — and a booby trap was tripped. Shrapnel ripped into his face, piercing a hole in his right cheek. A medic from Duluth, whose name Biehn never found out, tried to stop the heavy bleeding. Biehn's injury was serious enough to be transferred to a hospital in Japan. 

Medics there couldn't find the shrapnel which entered Biehn's face. Another transfer, and doctors finally located a sawed-off bolt, which had somehow moved down to the right side of his neck.

As he recovered, Biehn assisted other medics by helping take wounded soliders out of helicopters.

After Biehn recovered fully enough to return to action, he got word that his deployment had been halted. He has longed suspected that his brother, Steve, instead stepped in. The military's policy was to not place family members in the same unit.

For Biehn, while it wasn't a lengthy time in the fields of 'Nam, it was more than enough. In 1970, he was honorably discharged.

As Biehn neared the end of his "two-minute speech," the emotions began to get the best of him.

"I was a scared young kid," Biehn recalled. "You had to learn in that era how to survive."

Still, he's looking forward to later this year and the completion of the St. Peter Veterans Memorial at Minnesota Square Park.

'It's going to be a beautiful memorial," Biehn said.

Prior to Biehn's speech, St. Peter Mayor Chuck Zieman welcomed those in attendance.

"These patriots gave their lives so that we can have our freedoms," Zieman said. "We are forever indebted." 

Reach Dana Melius at 507-931-8567.

Former Regional Managing Editor, Adams Publishing Group--Southern Minnesota/Western Division: St. Peter Herald, Waseca County News, Le Center Leader, Le Sueur News-Herald. Now serving as a freelance reporter.

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