Honoring and Caring for Our Veterans

Darcy Soland, a recreation assistant at the Fergus Falls Veterans Home, makes sure all her vets have what they need during a community outing.
Darcy Soland, a recreation assistant at the Fergus Falls Veterans Home, makes sure all her vets have what they need during a community outing.

Veterans of WWII, Korea and Vietnam sit excitedly around a long table at the Fergus Falls American Legion Post 30, basking in the atmosphere.

Darcy Soland, a recreation assistant at the Fergus Falls Veterans Home where these men make their home, is a blur of motion. She helps one vet take his jacket off, makes sure another gets his fair share of onion rings, and figures out if a vet who can no longer speak wants his usual order of shrimp, all at the same time.

World War II veteran Clinton Neu enjoys chatting with Darcy Soland (right) and teasing her during an American Legion dinner outing.
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In between, the vets give her the business; their faces light up as she gives it right back. The vets immediately start a contest over who’s the oldest.

“I’m the oldest one,” claims World War II veteran Clinton Neu, pointing down the table at volunteer and fellow vet Harold Zilmer. “He’s not as old as me.”

How old are you? “Old as the hills,” Soland teases. Then Neu learns he’s only turning 94, while Zilmer is turning 95.

“He’s older,” Soland says. “You lose.”

“She always wins,” Zilmer jokes.

“I love you anyhow,” Neu tells Soland.

Soland, the vice president and chief steward of Local 735, is among many dedicated workers at our state Veterans Homes in Fergus Falls, Hastings, Luverne, Minneapolis and Silver Bay who care for our veterans when they can no longer care for themselves.

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The service they provide those who served our country isn’t limited to the vets’ physical health, comfort and safety. They take vets on outings partly funded by the Council 5 Veterans Initiative, which raises money through candy sales and a matching grant from AFSCME International. The money helps the homes buy items they couldn’t otherwise afford, everything from exercise equipment and a transit van in Hastings, to fishing trips and dinner outings.

“It’s important to get these guys out into the community. If they can’t get out into the community, they’re going to be sitting in the home,” Soland says. “These guys are the reason why we’re here. My grandpa was a veteran. These guys are like my grandpas.”

Veteran Gene Jorgenson gets teary-eyed at being called one of her grandpas. She pats his arm, then cuts up fish and French fries for the veteran on her other side.

In Fergus Falls, on top of donations by the Veterans Initiative and service groups, a program started by Soland and her boyfriend called Boots on the Ground kicked in $33,000 this year. The motorcycle fun run, gun raffle and silent auction helped pay for nearly 300 outings this year, a greenhouse and $10,000 toward a transit van.

Evie Kenyon (left) enjoys getting to go out to dinner with her husband Rollie. Darcy Soland (left), an AFSCME Local 735 official, organized and helped raise money for the outing.
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“Every day at the Veterans Home is Veterans Day because this is the last stop, the last place they’re going to live,” Soland says. “They’re having everything ripped away from them. Their independence is pretty much gone. We have to make every day special for them.”

The veterans say they can feel how special they are to workers and their community, thanks to outings such as dinner at the American Legion.

“Best dang time there is,” Neu says. “It’s the best damn fish you could ever buy. It’s the only place you get a good meal, and it reminds me of the days in the Army. We used to go out to beer joints and stuff like that. This looks a lot like that.”

“It means everything in the whole world,” says Ruben Runningen, who served in the Korean War as an Army machine gunner. “I can’t drive. I lost my driver’s license due to bad eyes.”

His favorite thing? The company, he says. “It makes me feel appreciated for the service we did for our country.”

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The men here are especially grateful for workers like Soland who make these outings possible. Runningen says she’s a wonderful person -- and a great dancer.

“What do you want me to tell you about her?” Neu asks. “How about a bunch of lies?” He laughs. “Nah, she’s a good kid. I love her to pieces. She doesn’t love me, but I love her.”

“I love you,” Soland replies. “I love you every day that ends in Y.”

They smile, then return to their dinners.

To get involved in Council 5’s Veterans Initiative, contact Eric Jacobson.

Learn more about Boots on the Ground at www.bootsonthegroundvetsrun.org.