PERHAM, Minn. (WCCO) — When the honor guard fires into the air during veterans’ funerals, it’s a tribute to someone who has served this country. But before that moment arrives — before those veterans pass on — there’s a growing effort to save their stories.
That’s especially true in Perham, Minn. For the past few years, hundreds of veterans living within 75 miles of the town have been taking turns going in front of a camera, sharing personal stories of courage and honor — along with pain and loss.
It’s a project that started when veterans in the area decided they could put their VFW hall to better use than a bar and restaurant. They converted it to the ITOW (In Their Own Words) Museum. Video testimonials now play inside the building on TV monitors in nearly every room.
“You might as well know it, because I had to be there to do it,” says one man on a screen in one hallway.
In another, you can watch Larry Kempenich talk about Vietnam, as an anti-war protester appears on another monitor nearby.
“One of the reasons I did the interview,” said Kempenich, “was to let the young people of today know what we went through, so they don’t have to go through it.”
The museum director, Lina Belar, said it was difficult at first to get veterans to open up on camera. But as each one did it, more of them became willing.
For example, she said Korean War veteran Charlie Silbernagel indicated that his on-camera appearance would be his only time to open up.
“He said to me, ‘if they want to know what’s going on, what I experienced, they should come and listen to it here,’” she said.
Paul LaFond, though, is a Vietnam veteran who is not taking part in this effort. He said his own family members don’t know what he experienced in combat.
“I haven’t even told my wife,” he said. “They know nothing. I don’t talk about it. See, what bothers a lot of us — why did I come back and they didn’t, you know?”
Some of the veterans who did go on camera have since died, including former prisoner of war Anton Cichy of New York Mills, who survived the Bataan Death March.
But as more veterans return home, more stories are recorded.
“If these young people would just come and listen to these people talking today,” said Kempenich, “they would be astounded what they hear.”
The museum offers free admission to everyone on Veterans Day, but admission is always free for veterans themselves.