UND’s commitment to veterans shines through
Veterans Day ceremony at Gorecki Alumni Center honors area, UND service members
UND President Andrew Armacost’s voice choked with emotion when describing the defiance, resilience and perseverance displayed by American prisoners of war who spent years of their lives in torturous captivity during the Vietnam War.
A cold, snowy, blustery day couldn’t stop the University of North Dakota on Veterans Day last Friday from honoring service members who have passed away, served or continue to serve. Dozens braved the adverse weather conditions to attend a ceremony hosted by the UND Alumni Association & Foundation in the Gorecki Alumni Center.
Armacost retired as a brigadier general after a 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force, 20 of those at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. He noted that his father-in-law belonged to the academy’s 499-member class of 1964.
A high price to pay
From this class, Armacost said 44 were killed in the line of duty and 17 died in combat operations. Ten pilots were shot down during the war in Vietnam and spent an average of 6.1 years as POWs. They survived beatings, torture and the harshest of living conditions, which exacted a physical and mental toll.
Through his father-in-law who was also a Vietnam-era Air Force pilot, Armacost and his wife Kathy came to know some of the former class of ’64 POWs, one of whom was Maj. Gen. Edward Mechenbier.
“Gen. Mechenbier bestowed on Kathy and me many stories about his harrowing tales as a POW, the stories of the perseverance and the faith that he and his fellow POWs had to make it out of captivity alive,” he said.
“We think about those stories and so many others, the physical injuries and, just as important, the unseen injuries in war that we as a country must continue to care for,” Armacost continued. “It’s how we honor them and care for them that matters. And we at UND will continue to do this with our strong commitment to our veterans.”
Armacost remembered a speech Mechenbier gave at the Air Force Academy when a memorial was dedicated to honor the academy’s POWs. Because Americans held in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison weren’t allowed to talk to each other, they developed a secret code used to tap out messages.
“At the end of the speech, Gen. Mechenbier tapped the code used every night before going to bed. It was 22-33-22-21 – good night, God bless,” Armacost said, shedding a tear as he ended his Veterans Day remarks.
A homecoming delayed
Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski, a UND graduate, said one of the best moments of his past two years as mayor was helping to welcome Vietnam-era veterans back from their Honor Flight visit to Washington, D.C.
“To see those men in their 70s and 80s – strong, tough, warfighting men – come back grinning ear to ear with tears rolling down their faces as they walked off that plane, they got the reception they deserved 50 years ago, but didn’t get until that day,” Bochenski recalled.
DeAnna Carlson Zink, UNDAAF CEO, recognized some of UND’s veterans who’ve made lasting impressions on the University.
They include late president Tom Clifford, a decorated member of the U.S. Marine Corps who served in combat during World War II. Another Marine veteran, Earl Strinden, died last month after serving as the alumni association’s director for 26 years. Werner Nistler, whose donation to UNDAAF led to the recent dedication of the Nistler College of Business & Public Administration, was also a military veteran.
UND’s veterans make a difference
“Like Tom, Earl and Werner, military veterans have had an outsized impact on the students of this outstanding University,” Carlson Zink said. “As alumni, we are all very grateful to our veterans. Your service, your sacrifices are profoundly felt at this University that helps students achieve their dreams.”
Members of UND’s Army and Air Force ROTC programs also participated in the event. Army ROTC Cadet Jenna Hogetvedt served as master of ceremonies and recited the traditional Fallen Soldier’s Table reading. The Army ROTC color guard presented the colors while Cadet Bryce Gartner sang the national anthem.
Armacost said there are currently around 1,400 students on UND’s campus with a connection to the military, either through their own service or the service of a family member. Of those, 717 are using Veterans Administration benefits during the current semester and 196 are using federal and state tuition benefits.
“We are so proud of our record, to make sure that we honor them and take care of their educational needs, allowing them to make transitions from military service or into military service the right way,” he said.
Other efforts to aid and recognize veterans on campus include the creation of an Honor Wall in the UND Memorial Union; 14 UND students with Heart of America Patriot Foundation scholarships for dependents of deceased or 100% disabled veterans; 40 UND students in the Vets 2 Wings aerospace school’s pilot training program; and the availability through the Chester Fritz Library’s YouTube channel of video interviews with 38 former North Dakota and Minnesota POWs from World War II and the Korean War.