When Keith Halda returned to Deerwood in 1970 after serving in Vietnam, he told his mother, Carol Halda, that war protesters spit and threw stones at him when he and his fellow soldiers arrived back in the United States.
Now, nearly 20 years after Halda died of cancer linked to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War, he was one of 191 Vietnam veterans honored posthumously April 19 at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
His mother, who now lives in Brainerd; his brother, Tom Halda, also of Brainerd; and his sister, Nancy Soderman, her husband and their infant daughter attended the emotional ceremony held in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
Halda was one of nearly 1,400 Vietnam veterans recognized in the past six years during the In Memory Day ceremony.
"It did bring closure," said Tom Halda. "It was very emotional. I thought I could handle it but I broke down, seeing The Wall."
Tom Halda was 11 years younger than his brother Keith but remembers when he left home after enlisting in the U.S. Army. Keith Halda, who was a 1967 Crosby-Ironton High School graduate, spent 1969 and 1970 stationed in Vietnam.
Carol Halda said her son said one day a plane flew overhead and doused him with the toxic defoliant Agent Orange.
Agent Orange was the code name for the herbicide the military used during the war to destroy the dense vegetation in Vietnam to protect American troops from being ambushed. According to the Department for Veterans Affairs, between 1961 and 1971, the U.S. military in South Vietnam used more than 19 million gallons of herbicides for defoliation and crop destruction. Veterans Affairs now recognizes an array of medical conditions associated with exposure to Agent Orange, including skin and nerve disorders, type 2 diabetes and numerous cancers.
What is the In Memory Day ceremony?
Each year the In Memory Day ceremony honors veterans who have died but whose names are not eligible for inscription on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
The program pays tribute to Vietnam veterans who didn't die during combat, but rather those who died prematurely because of non-combat injuries and emotional suffering, such as from exposure to Agent Orange or suicides attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder.
The ceremony is on the third Monday of April.
For more information, visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Web site at www.vvmf.org.
Keith Halda moved back to Deerwood in 1978 with his wife, Carolyn, often working in the construction field. He and his wife had four children. Halda started growing sick in 1980. He had pain in his back, which they initially thought was arthritis. But it wasn't arthritis that caused his pain. Halda had several tumors growing around his spine. He suffered through about 8-10 back surgeries and several of his vertebra were fused together, said his family. When tumors would be removed, others would grow back. He ended up in a wheelchair after he could no longer walk.
The Haldas said that Keith and his doctors believed the fast-growing cancer, which became inoperable at the end of his life, was the result of his exposure to Agent Orange, but the U.S. government hadn't yet taken responsibility for the harmful effects that the herbicide had on Vietnam veterans.
"It should have been acknowledged sooner," Carol Halda said of the health consequences of Agent Orange by the government. "But at the time, there wasn't much known about it,"
Keith Halda died on Nov. 29, 1984. He was only 35 and had four children at home, ages 4-12.
Halda's wife, who has since remarried and lives in Wisconsin, sent the Halda family information about the In Memory Day ceremony in Washington. She had submitted medical records and information to make sure her former husband was recognized as someone who died as a result of his service in Vietnam.
Several area military organizations and individuals gave donations to the Halda family so they could attend the April 19 ceremony in Washington. They include Myron-James American Legion Post No. 443 in Ironton, American Legion Post No. 560 in Zimmerman, East Central Minnesota Vietnam Veterans of American No. 684 in Cambridge, Vietnam Veterans of America No. 290 in St. Cloud; Walter Scott Erickson American Legion Post No. 557 in Deerwood, American Legion Post No. 255 in Brainerd, Mille Lacs Military Service Association in Isle, John and Sue Austin and Brenda and Richard Stirewalt.
More than 1,000 family members, friends and fellow veterans participated in the In Memory Day event that honored veterans like Halda who died prematurely because of non-combat injuries and emotional suffering directly caused by the Vietnam War but whose names weren't eligible for inscription on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Only those veterans who died of injuries suffered in combat zones during the Vietnam War are eligible for their names to be added to The Wall.
At the April 19 ceremony, Carol Halda was given the opportunity to read her son's name as he and the other 190 veterans were recognized for their sacrifices. Then the families placed the paper plaques and stands with their loved ones' name and photograph against the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The new In Memory plaque that will be installed at the memorial site was unveiled at the ceremony.
Halda was one of 11 Minnesotans honored at the In Memory Day ceremony.
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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