The Dead and The Wounded

Last spring three soldiers from northern Minnesota's Carlton County died in Iraq in one month's time

"They just took it upon themselves to do that," Mary says. Carla nods. "That's the caliber of kids we have," she adds.

There were other tributes, too. One girl wrote a poem called "The Blue Slip," a reference to the note dispatched from the principal's office when there is this kind of news for teachers to read to their classes. And on Memorial Day, Mary discovered the message "Milly we love you" written on a stone on Matt's grave in a cemetery just north of town. Later she heard that the kids were surprised there was no headstone yet. Of course, she adds, there wasn't even grass yet. When it finally did sprout, she let it grow up around the stone.

 

In World War I, Carlton County lost 27 soldiers and one Marine, according to Minnesota Historical Society records. Sixty-six died in World War II. And although it's known that the county lost men in the undeclared wars after that, it's not clear how many.

Up through 1950 or so, the Carlton County numbers are not anomalous; most Minnesota counties sent and lost high numbers of men. But service levels have stayed relatively high throughout Carlton County, which stretches from Moose Lake on the south almost all the way to Duluth on the north. Partly it's a matter of the National Guard base in Cloquet, and partly it's the lack of ready opportunities for the area's high school graduates.

But in relatively prosperous Moose Lake, there's one more factor. In 1923, after World War I, the precursor to the federal Veterans Administration (which wouldn't be created until 1930) helped 800 disabled Minnesota veterans resettle on tracts of land in a handful of places throughout the state. The agency helped the men figure out what kind of crops would thrive on each plot, and how to clear the land gradually. About 50 men were set up in Moose Lake, where it was thought that berries and poultry held the most promise. The Moose Lake "trainees" were well received, so well that some of the veterans actually voiced concern that the banks were being too lenient with them.

Today, military recruiters begin visiting Moose Lake High School (which graduates about 60 students a year from small surrounding communities) and cultivating relationships with students in the ninth grade. With parental consent, kids can pre-enlist in the 11th grade. "Quite a few go to college, but the number going into the military is increasing," says Tim Caroline, the superintendent of Moose Lake's schools. "It's just scary, plain old scary. It seems like they just graduate from high school and they're over there. Just real quick."

This high school is the alma mater of the only Carlton County resident to die in Vietnam: Merrel Sarvela, class of 1967. His picture hangs in the library in the basement. This year, the Blue Star mothers have arranged to hang Matt's and Moy's photos alongside Sarvela's.

At 8:55 on the morning of Veteran's Day, students clatter into the school auditorium and go through the intricate dance of figuring out who's going to sit where. The girls favor low-cut hip-huggers and bangs curled under with a curling iron, à la 1972. The boys are the height of men, but skinny and weedy. Some appear to have just discovered grunge; others wear navy-colored jackets with red sports letters.

The entire hall could fit inside a movie theater balcony. There are maybe 200 seats, arranged in long, shallow rows to accommodate a nearly full-sized proscenium stage. On it there's a podium hung with a garland of red, white, and blue stars, a dozen folding chairs, and a bevy of Blue Star mothers in Operation Enduring Freedom T-shirts silk-screened with images of the flag. Mary Nordlund has brought along a Beanie Baby bear in Marine fatigues and looks for a suitable place to prop it.

The two front rows are reserved for adults from Matt's and Moy's families, who slowly fill them. After everyone's seated, two men in white gloves, spit-polished boots, and gold braid enter from the rear of the hall bearing flags. There's a pause as the men, a color guard from the local VFW post, realize that the ceiling is too low to accommodate the flags. They make their way to the front of the auditorium and onto the stage.

One of these men makes a few thoughtfully composed remarks about what it means to be a veteran. Then Carla Giersdorf and Cathy Nummela present the high school principal and superintendent with the formal dress blue Marine portraits of Matt and Moy taken when they graduated from basic training.

A female student with a cordless mic takes the stage and, in the voice of a much older chanteuse, belts out Billy Ray Cyrus's "Some Gave All."

All gave some and some gave all
And some stood through for the red, white, and blue
And some had to fall
And if you think of me
Think of all your liberties and recall
Some gave all
The adults are bawling and the girls are passing Kleenex around. The boys just look stunned. The color guard wrestles the flags back out of the auditorium and the halls are silent as the students walk back to class.
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