Korea, Vietnam vet returns home to N.D.An old soldier came home to North Dakota last month, wanting to see his sister and an old friend and walk through his hometown once more before he and the little town fade away.
By: By Chuck Haga, Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
An old soldier came home to North Dakota last month, wanting to see his sister and an old friend and walk through his hometown once more before he and the little town fade away.
He nearly went first, suffering a heart attack during his visit.
Maybe it was the stress of the trip from his home in Georgia. Maybe the bullet and bayonet wounds he suffered in two wars were finally catching up to him. Or maybe it was the disappointment of seeing that his hometown of Inkster had aged and slowed, just as he has.
“The old white church is still there, ain’t it, Pop?” son-in-law Patrick Keen asked Maurice Hedstrom, 80, as “Pop” rested in bed the other day at Valley Eldercare Center in Grand Forks.
But the old bar is gone, he said, the one where a man refused to serve him when he came home from the Army the first time; he was still underage. The hotel and other once-familiar businesses are gone. The people he knew are gone.
The house he grew up in “is nothing but dust now,” he said.
He was a farmer’s son who at 17 decided he didn’t want to farm. With his mother’s permission, he joined the Army.
“The Army paid better, too,” he said.
A visitor asked him how long he served.
“Twenty-two years, nine months and 18 days,” he said in a way that suggested he had said it many times.
In the late 1940s, he served as a security guard in post-war Germany, during the Berlin Airlift and before the Berlin Wall went up. In the early 1950s, he was wounded twice in Korea, once during a mortar attack and once taking a bayonet thrust to the head.
“Mama, I got a hole in my head!” he reported to his mother, who was not amused.
During two tours of duty with the Green Berets in Vietnam in the 1960s, he collected two more Purple Hearts to go with the two he received in Korea — and a Silver Star for saving the life of his lieutenant during an ambush.
He wasn’t eager to talk about those days in any detail.
“He says it’s best that it’s over and done with,” Keen said.
Family members said he never has talked much about his wartime experiences, but his wife, Estelle, said that changed some shortly before the trip to North Dakota.
“He started talking about it because he started having nightmares,” she said. They’ve made arrangements for him to see a counselor when they get home.
They’ve been married for 50 years.
“We met at a dance at an NCO club in Fort Benning, Ga.,” Estelle Hedstrom said. “He was a little tipsy and fell in my lap, and I haven’t been able to get rid of him since.”
‘He’s a tough guy’
Patrick Keen married one of Hedstrom’s daughters, Kathryn. They live in North Augusta, S.C., just over the border from Augusta, Ga., where Maurice and Estelle Hedstrom live. They all came to North Dakota to visit Lois Durkin of Inkster, Hedstrom’s sister.
“And to see the old town one more time, right, Pop?” Keen said.
As he lay in the hospital bed, the loss of more than 20 pounds following the heart attack and surgery had put new wrinkles into the arm tattoos that had seemed a good idea a half century ago. One is dedicated to his mother. Another one isn’t.
“He had to put clothes on that one before he got married,” Keen said.
Hedstrom arrived in Vietnam on July 4, 1966, a master sergeant whose five-member Special Forces unit — two officers, two NCOs and a medic — often dropped from helicopters into jungle to scout enemy activity.
On one occasion, they jumped into an ambush. Hedstrom was shot in the left arm as he dragged his more severely wounded lieutenant to safety, for which he received the Silver Star.
“The lieutenant was evacuated to the States, and he was allowed a phone call when he got here,” Estelle Hedstrom said. “He called me before he called his own wife, to tell me (Maurice) was OK.”
Hedstrom was evacuated to Japan to recover from his wounds. But in 1969, he returned to Vietnam for a second combat tour.
“He’s a tough guy,” Keen said. “He was a drill sergeant in the Army, too, and he’s the reason I didn’t go into the Army. I was afraid I might have him as my drill instructor. So I joined the Air Force.”
Hedstrom left the Army in December 1971. He taught ROTC at a Twin Cities prep academy for a year, and then embarked on a second career — with his wife as a partner — as an over-the-road trucker. That ended when he was badly hurt in a 1991 wreck.
He was visiting a childhood friend in Emerado about four weeks ago when he complained about not feeling well. “He got checked out by a doctor in Park River, who said he either had a heart attack or was fixing to have one,” Keen said. “That night, he did.”
He had a triple bypass operation at Altru Health Center.
“That got him back into A-1 shape,” Keen said. “Now he’s got to get some nutrients in him and get him ready to go home to some warm weather.”
How’s the old warrior feeling now?
“Pretty good, I reckon.”
Estelle Hedstrom said they may make one more journey back to Inkster, “to see how he handles the travel,” before heading home to Georgia.
Despite the sadness over changes in Inkster and the rural countryside, her husband remains fond of the area, she said, and the family is grateful for the reception they’ve had and the care Hedstrom has received.
“North Dakota’s been good to us,” she said.
Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.