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Reaching ‘Beyond the Yellow Ribbon’

For the ninth consecutive Memorial Day weekend, Red Wing Area Seniors will transform the grassy space in Bay Point Park into a sprawling display of 350 American flags. Each year, the organization invites the families of veterans and active-duty service men and women to dedicate a flag in honor or memory of their loved ones as part of the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year.

Red Wing Area Seniors will print a tag that includes a veteran or servicemember name and photo for each flag dedicated. The Friday before Memorial Day, the names will be read off as flags are walked out to the field and posted during a dedication ceremony, where the flags will be displayed continuously all weekend.

“It’s breathtaking to see the flags with the river behind them,” said Kim Wojcik, program coordinator with the Red Wing Area Seniors facility, Pier 55. “I think for the veterans that are on our committee, the reading of the name is profound. That person is not forgotten or taken for granted.”

This year, Red Wing Area Seniors will split its proceeds from the event with Hiawatha Valley chapter of Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, a statewide nonprofit committed to support veterans as well as active duty servicemembers and their families.

“Everyone is kind of familiar with tying the yellow ribbon around the old oak tree when (servicemembers) come back from deployment,” said Dave Birkenmayer, Red Wing project manager with the nonprofit. “Beyond the Yellow Ribbon takes it a step further when they come home.”

Meeting the needs

Yellow Ribbon strives to offer tangible support to veterans, servicemembers and their families at a local level and to maintain a network of trustworthy businesses and resources. The wide range of unique needs and struggles each family or individual faces compels Birkenmayer to approach each case on a personal level.

Some families might need direction to resources such as the YMCA, faith communities and recommended businesses for home or car repairs. For military parents in need of a night out, Yellow Ribbon has worked with the Elks Club and American Legion to cover a babysitter, dinner and Sheldon Theatre tickets.

The first service member Birkenmayer worked with had purchased a house in the neighborhood surrounding the Goodhue County History Center and hoped to open a bed-and-breakfast inn with her husband when she retired.

Her husband died while she was home on leave from deployment to Afghanistan, leaving her with her children and a home in need of costly roof and heating repairs.

“When he passed away, she had this huge old house and was trying to figure out how to take care of her kids,” Birkenmayer said. He reached out to local contractors to come take a look at her heating system and roof, which had been leaking. Though he’d asked only for their honesty in estimates and billing, the family was offered repairs to the roof free of charge.

For another family, a series of extensions on a father’s deployment prevented his wife and children from purchasing beds, which meant some of the children slept on the floor of their basement apartment. With discounts provided by Ferrin’s Furniture and Slumberland, Birkenmayer and former Red Wing Police Chief Tim Sletten, also a Yellow Ribbon member, delivered a new set of mattresses to the family’s home.

Unfriendly treatment

The support and services like those offered by Beyond the Yellow Ribbon have not always been extended to American veterans. Birkenmayer hopes to prevent other veterans and servicemembers from experiencing the treatment he received upon returning home from his service in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.

“For World War II vets, the whole country was behind you when you went off to war,” he said. “When we got off the airplane in Tacoma, kissing the ground because we were so grateful to be home, there were people behind the fence holding signs calling us baby killers, spitting on us and throwing stuff at us. We didn’t choose to go to war, we were drafted into the service.”

Birkenmayer said his Air Force uniform and recognizably military haircut made him a target for this kind of confrontation — from both civilians and fellow veterans, as he realized during a stop at a VFW on his way home to Illinois from the West Coast following his deployment.

“I just wanted to relax a little bit, have a beer and maybe talk to some guys about our experiences,” he said. “These World War II guys started railing on me, saying, ‘It’s not a real war, you guys are losing it, you’re not winning any battles.’ We lost 58,272 (soldiers) and they said that to me.”

Having experienced animosity toward veterans, Birkenmayer said the Field of Honor memorial is a profound sight, especially after the dark.

“To drive down to Bay Pointe Park at night with 350 illuminated flags — you’d have to be dead if it doesn’t affect you somehow, no matter what age you are,” he said.

The dedication ceremony will commence Friday May 27 at 6 p.m. and will be accompanied by a variety of military vehicles on display. Flags can be dedicated for $25 by contacting Pier 55 at 651-327-2255.