by Joni Astrup
Gov. Mark Dayton has visited the beaches of Normandy and felt the long shadow of World War II.
“I’ve stood on one of the beaches there right at the water’s edge and looked ahead into those German bunkers and tried to imagine the courage it took to disembark, the hellfire that those brave heroes were going into,” he told a crowd Thursday night in Elk River. “And then you go walk nearby and there is the American cemetery with over 10,000 white crosses all lined up in rows. The power of the silence there is just staggering because you realize these are people who gave of their lives, most of them in the prime of their lives, for the freedom that we all enjoy.”
Dayton recounted that and other reminders that freedom isn’t free at a ceremony that officially certified Elk River as a Beyond the Yellow Ribbon city. The wide-ranging Yellow Ribbon program is an effort to support active military service people and their families.
The governor congratulated Mayor John Dietz and everyone involved in making Elk River a Yellow Ribbon city. He told them they’re making a real difference in the lives of American heroes.
The ceremony was held at the downtown River’s Edge Commons Park with the Mississippi River as a backdrop. Dayton said he was honored to participate.
“We all understand that freedom is not free,” he said.
That has been driven home for him not only in Normandy, but in going to Afghanistan and Iraq. While Dayton said his visits there don’t begin to compare with the soldiers’ long deployments, it has given him an understanding of the pressures soldiers face and the sacrifices they all make.
He said he’s reminded again that freedom is not free whenever he attends a soldier’s funeral service, one of the “true heroes.”
“The grief, the pain, of family members — often young spouses, often children too young to even really comprehend that their parent is not coming home — it’s a very humbling experience. I’m filled with the deepest admiration for the heroism, the patriotism, the courage, it takes for our women and men in uniform to serve all of us, to put their lives on the line and sometimes give their lives for the rest of us,” Dayton said.
Beyond the Yellow Ribbon connects civilians with the men and women who are serving in the military and is a way for them to know that people care, support them and are willing to lend a helping hand, he said.
Brig. Gen. Robert Cayton told the story of a deployed pilot serving in the Middle East. The man had a wife and baby back home and came to Cayton one day and told him he had to go home because his wife couldn’t handle it any more.
Cayton arranged some basic help for the pilot’s wife and things improved. Often, he said, help with things like child care, lawn care and household chores can make a difference for family members. That, in turn, helps people like the pilot.
“If a kid doesn’t have his head in the game and you’re sending him into harm’s way, that’s a scary thing,” Cayton said. “The Yellow Ribbon networks help fix that. It’s a great thing.”
Mayor Dietz initiated Elk River’s involvement in the Yellow Ribbon program at the suggestion of veteran Ralph Donais.
Dietz sees it as a way to help families of deployed soldiers.
“When our soldiers are deployed they need to fully focus on what they’re doing, what their mission is. If they are oversees worrying about their families back at home and get distracted, it can cost them their lives. So in one small way, maybe we are helping to save the lives of some of our soldiers,” Dietz said.
The Beyond the Yellow Ribbon steering committee in Elk River was chaired by Don Heinzman, an Army veteran.
Heinzman said the group met for over a year and developed a plan to bring all community resources together to assist military families and service men and women.
“We are here today because Elk River is welcoming community to active military service men and women and particularly their families. We honor them and we thank them for their service,” Heinzman said as the audience applauded.
Heinzman said the program has special training for law enforcement officers when they encounter troubled veterans, it has county resources at the ready and it is prepared at the schools to help children of military families who may encounter problems when a parent is deployed. It also has resources available through a variety of channels including the YMCA, the Boys and Girls Club of Elk River and Big Brothers and Big Sisters. A list of volunteers has been compiled of people willing to help.
Heinzman recognized members of the steering committee (see their photo on page 6.)
Annette Kuyper, director of military outreach for the state of Minnesota, also spoke.
Kuyper said it’s not easy to achieve Yellow Ribbon certification. It means that the steering committee had to go into every area of the community to look at how Elk River can go over and above to honor, recognize and support service members, she said.
The patriotic certification ceremony began with the Elk River American Legion Color Guard marching into the park as a hushed crowd watched. The Land of Lakes Choirboys sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and Eagle Scout Ryan Toth led the Pledge of Allegiance.
The program ended with the governor presenting the mayor with the Beyond the Yellow Ribbon certification, followed by the Elk River American Legion Color Guard retiring the flags.