This Memorial Day, we share two stories of remembrance about two Minnesotans who were directly impacted by one of the most turbulent chapters in American history – the Vietnam War.


THE GIFT OF THE COIN

Winona veteran and author Jim Crigler was a warrant officer flying with the 129th Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam. He has flown thousands of combat missions and witnessed the very worst of the Vietnam War.

Jim had a roommate in Vietnam – 1st Lieutenant, Thomas Francis Shaw from
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. As the stresses of war increased, the two made a pact with each other: If one of them was killed in combat, the other would do everything he could to be the burial escort officer who would accompany the body back to the United States and comfort the family.

“The day after we made that pact, my roommate was killed in action.”

Bringing his friend’s body home was Jim’s most difficult mission.

In 2018, 45 years after he returned home, Jim went on another mission, a solo canoe paddle down the entire Mississippi River to honor his fallen friend and the Gold Star families that sacrificed loved ones. Beginning at the headwaters of Lake Itasca, Jim paddled the river, and met and personally thanked more than 360 Gold Star families along the way. About 80 percent of them were Vietnam Gold Star families – and most of them had never been thanked for their sacrifice.

“And I thanked and gave each one of them an honor coin. And believe me, I cried with many of them, because it was a very emotional thing to do. But I just let my tears flow with theirs as an honor to them.”

Jim discovered two things while he paddled: “For one, it really renewed my faith in America. You see, the people in the heart of our country are very kind and generous. But I also discovered something else – that we have not fully healed from the Vietnam War.”

But he sees a chance for our divided country to heal.

“You see, there’s a power in us as a community to heal, to make positive change. We’re human. We can forgive each other.”

“It’s time to honor the sacrifices of those who fought for and fought against the war, but especially to those folks who lost loved ones in the war.”

Last summer, Jim participated in the Minnesota Remembers Vietnam “Epilogue” event at The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts where he presented another coin to Linda McBrayer, a Gold Star daughter who never met her father because he was killed in action during the Vietnam War.

Man holding a coin with a star on it
Jim Criger holding the Gold Star coin that he designed while on a stop in St. Paul on his Mississippi canoe paddle

“Linda, I’d like to present you with this honor coin. On the front is a gold star. It symbolizes your sacrifice. And on the back is embossed a message that says we honor the great sacrifice that you and your family have endured to protect our freedoms.

Soldier in a Huey Helicopter in Vietnam
Jim Crigler in a Huey Helicopter in Vietnam

And it’s our hope that each time you look at this coin, you feel it in your pocket or you see it in your purse that you remember that there are hundreds of us in this audience, and millions of us around the country, that appreciate and honor that sacrifice.

And I know how proud your father would be of you today for what you do, and I feel his spirit here, and if he could speak through me, I think what he would say, because of the Marine Corps that he was [part of]… I think he would look at his daughter and I think he would say, ‘Semper Fi, Linda. Semper Fi.’ May God bless you and your family.”

THE GIFT OF THE DIARY

Saint Paul resident, Linda McBrayer, is a Gold Star daughter. Her father, Thomas Soliz, was killed in action during the war when she was just a baby.

“This year, my birthday fell on Memorial Day. It’s a heart-rending day where I remember my father and the sacrifice that he made, but also selfishly, count another birthday without him. 2012 was the last time my birthday fell on Memorial Day. But rather than being affecting that year, it was, in fact, an extraordinary day which brought my father home to me.

You see, that weekend, we drove to Missouri, where I received an incredible gift: the diary my father kept while he was in Vietnam.”

Faded diary pages with handwriting
Pages in Thomas Soliz’s Vietnam War diary

The gift of his diary opened up a new world and miraculously brought her father’s voice into her life 45 years later.

“This journal, this small five-by-seven, black, three-ring binder filled with the yellowing notebook paper and surprisingly legible teenage-boy handwriting was carried 8,473 miles from Vietnam by a sergeant major to his bookcase in Independence, Missouri.”

The diary sat for three decades until it was discovered, transcribed by his granddaughter, and delivered to Linda another 10 years later.

“Somehow, some way, there it was, lying on a table in a Missouri restaurant, 45 years after its last entry.”

In the diary he writes in early November of 1966:

I can’t believe how alone I really am here. Last night I was looking for someone to talk to, and I couldn’t find a soul. I even tried to talk to God last night, but I kind of wonder if I got my point across to him or not.

All I can do is wait patiently for a friend or my flight date back home, whichever comes first.

Man smiling at camera
Thomas Soliz, US Marines

In another passage he writes:

I walk alone, carrying about me an envelope of loneliness from which the only escape is an active mind.


And in one of his final entries, he writes:

What is Vietnam?
To some, it’s rice paddies and heat.
To some it’s snipers and hidden VC.
To me, it’s loneliness.

 

 

Linda shared: “On Wednesday, September 6th, Corporal Thomas Salice, United States Marine Corps, died while holding off enemy combatants. His quick thinking saved the lives of his fellow Marines, and in his final actions proved that, while he may have believed he was alone and surrounded by strangers, he never was.

He was surrounded by his brothers, his brothers in arms, men who love him and miss him to this day.”

Thomas Soliz, Corporal, United States Marine Corps, received the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism while serving as a radio operator in the Republic of Vietnam on 6th, September, 1967.

Photo of a man in a military uniform
Thomas Soliz, US Marines

The sergeant major’s son wrote to Linda:
“The journal was found in my father’s library following his death. I have no idea how he came about being in possession of it, but I can only imagine that it was his wish to find your family so that you would read the words of love he had for his wife and the daughter he never knew, and for others to know the struggles he had at being thrust into manhood, as he and so many others were.”

Linda’s life was forever changed by this gesture. She shared:

“This journal was found on a shelf on a bookcase in a basement, but rather than set it aside with the other belongings, these people, these strangers no more to me, in their grief for their father and their grandfather gave this journal more than just a minute of thought, and in doing so, turned the dial on the kaleidoscope of my life and brought my father home to me.”

We invite you to share your thoughts, or a memory this Memorial Day in the comments below.


The video is excerpted from EPILOGUE: MINNESOTA REMEMBERS VIETNAM
On June 23, 2018 at The Ordway, Kevin Kling, Cathy Wurzer and J.D. Steele led a dozen storytellers, including Jim Crigler and Linda McBrayer, in a show that moved from remembrance toward reconciliation, with just a hint of revival for good measure.

Drawing from some of the most compelling stories of the Minnesota Remembers Vietnam initiative, Epilogue explored the war and its enduring legacy through music and stories.

Fifty years after the height of the war, this show was about what unites us.

Watch the full performance here: https://www.mnvietnam.org/epilogue/

Read Linda’s Story Wall story

Jim’s Story Wall Story

Share your own Vietnam War story at MNVietnam.org



This article is made possible by generous funding from the Fred C. and Katherine B. Andersen Foundation.