The crowd of several hundred people murmured a "wow" and rose in a standing ovation Friday as a parachute dropped to reveal a statue depicting U.S. Navy Cmdr. David Wheat as a prisoner of war.
His wife, Ginger Wheat, wiped away tears as she stood next to David after unveiling the statue with the help of their grandchildren at the Commemorative Air Force Lake Superior Squadron hangar at the Duluth airport. The crowd was eager to see the statue afterward, pushing forward to take photos and greet the Wheat family.
David Wheat, a native of Duluth, spent 7½ years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, and the statue depicts him gazing up at a window in a room where he can't fully stand up.
Sometimes during his captivity he could see trees blowing in the wind and it would remind him of the trees back home, he said. He's reminded of those years every day.
"To me ... this represents seven-and-a-half years of my life I'll never forget," he said.
The statue honors all prisoners of war and those missing in action from Minnesota, he said.
"We all have a story to tell," he said. "But we were the lucky ones. We came home. ...
"This was not a game," Wheat said of his time as a prisoner of war. "We couldn't quit. We couldn't go home."
Wheat's daughter Erin McLaughlin said she was amazed to see the turnout for the unveiling and to see her dad honored. She traveled from Washington for Friday's event.
"I'm just so proud that he's my dad," she said.
The statue is a reminder to continue working until all missing soldiers are accounted for, said John Marshall, project chairman and a member of the Northland Veterans Service Committee.
"This is a very, very powerful piece," Marshall said.
The statue shows the hostility, anger, pain and suffering caused by war, said Brad Bennett, a radio host on WDSM-AM 710. Wheat had everything taken away from him, Bennett said, but "they never took his dignity and honor away from him."
The statue eventually will be placed on the second floor of the Duluth International Airport terminal after a recent disagreement over whether it was appropriate to place the statue outside the terminal. The $60,000 statue will be the responsibility of the Northland Veterans Service Committee.