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Local view: Medals or not, all were heroes and patriots

Joe Venier of the Honor Guard of VFW Posts 137 and 6320 salutes as taps is played during a Memorial Day ceremony in May 1997 at Calvary Cemetery. (File / News Tribune)

I sat across the kitchen table from Joe Venier and listened to his story. Joe was a World War II veteran and former commander of the Duluth Honor Guard, and his story was one of heroism, loyalty and modesty. I was in Joe’s home for three reasons. One, as a veteran, I was interested in Joe’s story; I empathized with it. I was also there in an official capacity as a staff member of Congressman James Oberstar. He was big on helping veterans, which was one reason he hired me, an Army grunt. And, unofficially, I was there at the behest of Durbin Keeney, who demanded Joe be given his due. Frankly, you didn’t say no to Jim Oberstar or to Durb Keeney, a Vietnam veteran and longtime advocate for veterans in the Duluth area. I saluted and went to go see Joe.

As Joe recounted, he was with his platoon fighting his way into Germany when two things happened: He and several other members of his platoon were captured by Germans and later released. And he was wounded by shrapnel. Accordingly, Joe should have been awarded the POW Medal and a Purple Heart. He never was, and Durb wanted that corrected. So he called me, the veterans caseworker for Oberstar, to find out what could be done. Knowing how old Joe was, I figured I would just drive to his house, get the story and have him sign the privacy release form. Joe did what I asked, but he waved off the whole thing. He was just doing his job, he said. He wasn’t held captive for long and didn’t go to the battalion aid station because he heard one could get transferred to another unit after treatment. He wanted to stay with his buddies, so he field-dressed his shrapnel wound and moved on.

I could understand that. During the Gulf War, I tried to stay away from battalion as much as possible. But I let him know I’d work on the medals nevertheless. He deserved them.

I let the congressman and Durb know what I was doing and went to work. It didn’t work out. The Army stated there was no record of Joe being captured and his wound also was not recorded since he didn’t go to the battalion aid station. Essentially, no documentation meant no POW Medal and no Purple Heart. I tried spinning it several ways. I contacted the German government about evidence of the capture by the unit involved. Nothing. I then got a retired general working as a doctor for the VA to confirm that Joe’s wound was from shrapnel, but to no avail. I ended up pleading to the Army to give this veteran the benefit of the doubt. No deal.

Some months later Durb called me up and said Joe passed away — without getting the medals he deserved. It was the most angry I had ever heard Durb. He was bitter. Congressman Oberstar wasn’t pleased when I told him. I was mad at myself.

Durb called me up and offered to drive me to Joe’s funeral. I accepted and got a chance to pay my respects to Joe’s wife and offer my apologies for not doing more for him. Like Joe, she waved it off and just said she was happy Durb and I came to honor her husband. While her words had some comfort, I couldn’t help but feel I had let down three men I respected: Joe Venier, Congressman Oberstar and Durb Keeney.

And now all three are gone.

Today, Memorial Day, I honor them. In my eyes each was a hero and a patriot. Medals be damned. I want people to know they served their country well.

Dave Boe is a 20-year veteran who worked for U.S. Rep. James Oberstar for 12 years. He’s a writer who lives in Duluth.