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Notebook History

Sharon Dierberger

Jerry Kyser (Sharon Dierberger)

History

Serving those who served

One Vietnam War veteran found healing by honoring other vets

Seventh in a series on war veterans

Flying 70 feet above the tree line, helicopter crew chief and machine gunner Jerry Kyser saw North Vietnamese soldiers on the ground fire rocket-propelled grenades toward him. 

“RPG!” he yelled into his mic. The pilot of the UH-1 Huey quickly veered upward, and the explosive missiles passed directly underneath the skids. Kyser’s heart thudded.

Now 75 years old, Kyser recalls those days: “We had an attitude we were invincible. We were the good guys.” But during two tours of duty from 1968 to 1970 in the Vietnam War, as part of the 1st Aviation Brigade he’d seen helicopters go down, survived one crash, retrieved comrades killed in action, machine-gunned enemies, and had shrapnel pierce his foot. He made it home with his life—and psychological wounds. Healing those wounds took a supernatural heart change and a reorientation of his life mission.

The day he finished his second tour of duty, Kyser saw the helicopter he’d flown in blown up by an enemy rocket while parked nearby. Within the week, he found himself back in college in North Dakota, trying to reconcile the peaceful campus with the life-and-death combat situations he’d left behind. He struggled to fit in and suffered flashbacks.

For years after finishing college, Kyser bounced from job to job and tried to figure out why life was so hard. His emotions were volatile. Doctors checked him for Agent Orange poisoning. They evaluated him for schizophrenia. Nothing could pinpoint the heart of his issues.

Internally, he wrestled with submitting to authority, recollecting a bad experience with a colonel he’d had in Vietnam. Kyser also resented World War II and Korean War veterans. Many had treated him and other Vietnam combatants derisively. “I even got into a fist fight with one because he called us a bunch of killers,” he says.

In 1976 he married Jana, a widow dealing with trauma of her own. She’d become an alcoholic after her first husband, a Vietnam vet who had returned from the war angry and abusive, drowned during a family vacation.

But several years into her marriage to Jerry, Jana became a Christian and quit drinking. Her transformation sparked a spiritual awakening in Jerry, who also surrendered to Jesus. Through deep conversations and Bible study, they began helping each other deal with past issues. Jana encouraged Jerry to seek more help, and eventually doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Giving his life to Christ and learning about PTSD and its effect on hundreds of thousands of veterans helped Kyser look beyond himself. After 9/11, he became an advocate for Vietnam vets, eventually becoming the president of Minnesota Vietnam Veterans of America. 

While serving fellow veterans, he realized something else: Focusing on others softened his feelings of resentment toward earlier war vets.

As he and Jana prayed daily for God to heal, guide, and bless them, they met people who introduced them to the Honor Flight Network, a national nonprofit that takes veterans free to Washington, D.C., to visit their respective war memorials. In 2008, the Kysers started Honor Flight Twin Cities and began taking local veterans, mostly from WWII and the Korean War, on trips to the U.S. capital.

On the Honor Flights, the veterans realize their sacrifices haven’t been forgotten. They talk about experiences during the war—sometimes for the first time—and often rekindle relationships or strike up new ones with fellow travelers. They get “mail call,” where Jerry delivers prearranged letters from the veterans’ loved ones thanking them for their service. In Washington, they receive a hero’s welcome and visit their monument—the World War II Memorial or the Korean War Veterans Memorial. 

Jerry comes from eight generations of military men, with relatives who served in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. His father served under Gen. George Patton in WWII. The Kysers’ daughter was an Air Force cadet and married a Marine Corps pilot.

Jerry speaks about the veterans in his Honor Flight program with great respect and has befriended many. He meets regularly with one World War II vet, 99-year-old Bernie Holritz (see “Adjusting to bigger plans,” Oct. 24, 2020), whom Kyser considers a spiritual mentor. Each week they study the Bible together and pray.

After finding Christ, Jerry says, nothing has given him greater purpose and joy than honoring men and women from other wars who share his love of country. He revels in helping them tell their stories. He speaks with pride about his wife, who’s been integral in their work: “She’s the two-star general. I’m just a sergeant.” 

Jana notes that God has taken away Jerry’s bitterness. “Doing these Honor Flights was a healing mission for Jerry. He was giving honor to these men and women who hadn’t treated the Vietnam vets very well.”

Since 2008, the Kysers have taken 22 trips with over 2,000 mostly WWII and Korean War vets. In addition to leading Honor Flights, Jerry arranges military jet flyovers for ceremonies honoring veterans. He continues to raise money for homeless vet organizations, military appreciation days, commemorative military airports, and other veteran causes. 

The Honor Flights are on pause for now, but once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, the Kysers plan to resume them. As the number of World War II veterans decreases, they will focus more on Korean War and Vietnam servicemen and women. With about 350,000 veterans still living in Minnesota, most of whom haven’t yet been on an Honor Flight, the Kysers have many more missions ahead.

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Illustration by Trudy King; Inset: Handout

Wilbur Halvorsen in World War II (inset) and now (Illustration by Trudy King; Inset: Handout)

History

Close-call survivor

WWII veteran Wilbur Halvorsen says brushes with death strengthened his faith in God

Sixth in a series on war veterans

Staff Sgt. Halvorsen yelled for his men to take two shots and keep running, following orders to get downhill in the dark past German snipers and into the Belgium village of Mageret. As Halvorsen knelt to fire his own shots, his M1 rifle jammed. He jiggled the bolt to unjam it, when—phsht!—a German bullet hit him in the chest. He crumpled to the ground, and the Battle of the Bulge went on without him.

Halvorsen had already narrowly escaped death by a German grenade. During his time in the combat zone, he’d seen many fellow soldiers killed. He was a Christian believer who trusted in a divine plan, but as he lay in the snow bleeding, he wondered, would God save him again?

Wilbur “Web” Halvorsen had been drafted into the Army in 1942, when he was 24. An economics graduate and former wrestling captain at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., he’d already been working a year at Morton Salt in Chicago for $21 a week when duty called. 

After training, the Army assigned him to Company A, 50th Armored Infantry Battalion in the 6th Armored Division as a rifle squad leader. Sent to England in 1944, his division readied itself for the Normandy invasion.

"My faith became even stronger because of the war."

Halvorsen disembarked on Utah Beach more than a month after D-Day, as the Allies continued their assault. Gen. George Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army commanded Halvorsen’s division and directed his battalion to capture Hill 105 outside the town of Brest.

During the American attack on that hill, an enemy grenade blew off Halvor­sen’s helmet, and shrapnel lodged in his back. A bullet went through a nearby soldier’s eye, and another killed Halvorsen’s lieutenant. After losing contact with remaining squad members, Halvorsen hid beneath a haystack, then snuck into dense foliage as enemy soldiers strode by. 

He survived thanks to five French children who found him and, using an ingenious ruse, led him safely past marauding Nazis. The 11-year-old placed his younger siblings along a path as lookouts. Each signaled when it was safe for Halvorsen to move forward. He made it back to American troops just as his commanding officer was about to declare him missing in action.

Halvorsen was scared that day, not knowing if he would live, die, or be caught by the Germans. But he says, “I prayed every day, and I was brought up with a strong faith.” He believes God was looking out for him and protecting him. 

What happened after the bullet pierced his lung in Belgium was further proof. He recalls his thoughts as he lay in the snow, staring at the sky with blood trickling from his mouth, knowing lung wounds are usually fatal: “If I was going to die, I was ready to accept it.” He focused on all his parents had taught him about God, and prayed.

A medic finally arrived. Halvorsen endured a difficult transport, then waited 15 hours at the Bastogne field hospital, where famed thoracic surgeon Maj. Lamar Soutter, who had only recently arrived on a glider plane amid gunshots, operated on him successfully.

“That was a miracle,” says Halvorsen. “Without his expert surgery, I wouldn’t be here.”

After the war, Halvorsen fell in love, married, and moved to Seattle, where he worked in sales. His first wife, Leonie Darro, died in 1989. Later, he reunited with his teenage sweetheart, Marion, who was also widowed. Wilbur and Marion have been happily married 30 years and live on Whidbey Island, Wash.

For his service, Halvorsen was awarded two Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, and a French Medal of Honor, among others.

Halvorsen, now 102 years old, says that seeing death and surviving so many close calls during the war forced him to contemplate his own mortality. It also prompted him to call out to God for help: “My faith became even stronger because of the war.” 

He adds, “I wish I could give that faith to everybody.”  

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Handout

Bill Patten (Handout)

History

Flying unfriendly skies

WWII pilot Bill Patten faced perils of combat and turned to God

Fifth in a series on war veterans

Over Regensburg, Germany, flak not only hit the plane, but tore into a crew member and the chief pilot’s thigh. As the pilot tried to stanch bleeding, co-pilot Bill Patten took over the controls.

Patten, 26, was a pilot with the 15th Air Force. He had a wife and daughter back home in Kansas City, Mo. Once in a while he’d read a Bible someone had sent to him, but as a not-too-religious military man, he took little comfort in it.

That day above Germany during World War II, as he tried to maneuver the injured B-17 bomber beyond enemy range, Patten promised God he’d be more faithful if He just helped him land.

It was a promise he intended to keep.

Patten had volunteered for the Air Corps in 1942, hoping to become a pilot. He’d already graduated from college with a degree in aeronautical engineering, worked in production for Beech Aircraft in Wichita, Kan., and married his life’s love, Pearl.

During more than a year at airfields nationwide, he learned to fly small single-­engine planes, then twin-engines, and eventually four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers.

While stateside, Patten’s biggest struggle wasn’t learning flying protocols or even saying goodbye to his wife and infant daughter. The worst was receiving the wire saying his mom had died from cancer. “I almost washed out then,” he later told me, recalling how he fought to concentrate on flying.

Superiors sent him to Foggia, Italy, with the 15th Air Force in early 1944. From then until the war ended, Patten, a first lieutenant, flew 34 bombing missions. Often his crew targeted German factories producing parts for Nazi equipment. Sometimes he navigated toward Romanian oil fields, supply sources for Axis countries. “Those were tough targets—far away and well-protected,” says Patten.

You were always alert, trying to stay in formation, checking altitude, watching for foreign fighters.

Keeping 12 to 16 planes safely in formation required vigilance and undivided attention, says Patten: “There were midair collisions … lots of near-misses.” He says he was probably too busy to notice how scared he was: “You were always alert, trying to stay in formation, checking altitude, watching for foreign fighters.” Routinely, the acclaimed Tuskegee Airmen fighter escorts protected his formation.

On several missions, his plane lost engines. During others, like the one over Regensburg, attackers riddled the fuselage with bullets and flak. On that one, after breathing his prayer for help, he focused his attention and strength on holding the controls steady, maneuvering away from Luftwaffe planes, and eventually landed safely.

After the war, Patten kept the promise he’d made on that flight. He started attending his wife’s Methodist church regularly and got baptized there. He concentrated on raising his family and rising with Butler Manufacturing, where he became a vice president. He and his wife mourned when they suffered a stillborn boy and girl between their oldest and youngest daughters.

His adult daughters, Cheryl Goodin and Lisa Johnson, say their dad is a humble role model. “He is strong in his faith, leading by example,” says Johnson. They recount how both parents started a church plant that thrives today.

After 70 years of marriage, Pearl died in 2011 from Alzheimer’s disease. Patten faithfully tended to her during those difficult last years. When no longer able to care for her, he drove 90 minutes each way to visit her daily.

“I really loved her,” says Patten quietly. “She was just a wonderful woman.” Then quickly he jokes, “She tolerated me.”

Today Patten, 102 years old, listens to audiobooks and Charles Stanley sermons, works out with his caregiver, and relishes phone visits with friends and 17 great-grandchildren. His daughters say he rarely talks about difficulties. Patten says resolutely, “Well, I just have to keep going.”

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