Mother and Country

How personal tragedy made a politician of Patty Wetterling

American-made cars fill the parking lot along Main Street and the agony and ecstasy of bingo can be heard on the ground floor of Anoka's American Legion building. It's a warm evening in early October-election season in America. Downstairs in a small, windowless basement with ersatz paneling and patriotic credos on the walls, Patty Wetterling sits on a table in front of the room like the junior high math teacher she was in the blissfully anonymous phase of her life. Arrayed before her are about 20 members (and two supportive wives) from Chapter 430 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Like Wetterling, these middle-aged men have been shaped by trauma, to the point where post-traumatic stress syndrome is casually referred to by its acronymic shorthand, "PTSS."

Even in her prim, modest sweater and slacks, Wetterling may be the best-dressed person among them. There's no ceremony to what's going on here. The vets have turned out tonight to figure out whether they need to change their perception of Patty Wetterling.

The vets and Wetterling have enjoyed a special relationship. Like just about every single thing in Wetterling's life, it revolves around the events of October 22, 1989. That day, Patty's son Jacob, then 11, was riding his bike home from renting a movie with his younger brother and a friend. They were accosted in the street by a masked gunman. The man asked each of the boys how old they were, and then told two of them to run into the woods and not look back. Jacob remained with the man. None of his friends or family ever saw him again.

Two months later, to call attention to the kidnapping, members of Chapter 430 staged an 11-mile Walk for Awareness from Elk River to Anoka. The walk became a ritual that has been repeated every December since then-going on 16 years now.

But there is a shifting dynamic at play between them tonight. For one thing, both sides have decided to discontinue the Walk for Awareness after this December. For another, Wetterling has come to them, with me and an Associated Press reporter in tow, as the DFL-endorsed candidate for a seat in the U.S. House from Minnesota's Sixth District. Less than a month before the election, Wetterling is not here to coordinate a walk, but to "be an ear" and "gain some perspective" on how the vets want to be represented in Washington.

For more than an hour, members of Chapter 430 oblige her with blunt, occasionally caustic opinions. There's plenty of frustration about the red tape and disrespectful treatment they receive from the federal Veteran's Administration, a healthy intramural debate about the political wisdom and public attitude regarding the current war in Iraq, and even a bit of unsolicited advice for the candidate.

"Now that you're in politics, don't let the big machines grind you up, Patty," says one man.

Toward the end of the evening, a vet seated in the front row takes advantage of a rare lull in the conversation. "I have been trying to think of how to say this so it doesn't sound like a lecture," he says. Despite the conciliatory words, something in his tone and body language makes it imperative that Wetterling look him directly in the eyes.

"That's okay," she says. "Please say what you want. I'm here to learn tonight."

"You have chosen a party that mostly loathes the military," the vet begins. For the next six or seven minutes, he launches into a barely controlled screed against the media and politicians of both parties over the way he and his family members in the service have been treated, ending with, "'I support the troops but not the war' is not something that as a veteran I want to hear."

Through it all, Wetterling is rapt, alternately nodding with empathy and jotting down notes on a legal pad in her lap. It's the same behavior she exhibited during another hour-plus meeting earlier that day with a handful of younger vets at Sparky's Café in downtown Anoka. Whether the subject is the mishandling and ill-preparedness of the occupation phase of the Iraqi war, the refusal of the VA Hospital to cover someone's cancer treatments, or the dastardly Democrats and the liberal media, she is at once nonresistant and thoroughly engaged. Put simply, she seems genuinely more interested in absorbing someone else's words than in formulating her response.

There is an almost painful lack of dazzle and a willingness to court naiveté in Wetterling's emphasis on listening. But then there are startling moments when she speaks from the heart and you suddenly understand why she must be regarded as a formidable candidate. After thanking the Chapter 430 vets for their annual walks, she says, "I remember when you released all those black balloons, and then there was a white balloon for Jacob. And you told me that's because he was missing in action. And I thought, 'Wow. These guys get it. They really do know what I've been going through.'"

Hearing those words, you realize that all the people Wetterling has been listening to so intently-the fearful soldier in chaotic Iraq, the guy whose buddy can't get cancer-treatment coverage, the vet who feels loathed by a major political party-belong, one way or another, to the ranks of the aggrieved.

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