‘What they have earned’

Residents celebrate, remember veterans
Members of the American Legion Post 20, Amvets Post 4 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10046 offer a rifle salute near the conclusion of Friday’s Veterans Day service at the Soldotna Sports Center.

Barbara Brinkerhoff read a set of words on Friday that were familiar to her.


She had spoken them before, but that’s not to say they’ve lost meaning.

“Those who have served and those currently serving in the uniformed services of the United States are ever mindful that the sweetness of enduring peace has always been tainted by the bitterness of personal sacrifice,” she said, reading from a prepared document.

“We are compelled never to forget that while we enjoy our daily pleasures, there are others who have endured and may still be enduring the agonies of pain, deprivation and imprisonment.”

Each year Brinkerhoff leads the remembrance service for prisoners or war and those soldiers missing in action at the Veterans Day service hosted by American Legion Post 20, Amvets Post 4 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10046.

It’s an emotional recital that puts into her mind the actions of her husband — Russell Brinkerhoff — who survived being taken prisoner by German forces in World War II.

“I can’t say it gets easier every year, but in a way I guess it does,” she said.

Russell previously gave the POW-MIA speech for several consecutive years before his death in 1998 at the age of 77. Each year since, save for one, Brinkerhoff has continued reading it, per the request of others.

“It has just become something I do and I do it for him, in memory of him, but also in memory of all the other soldiers and veterans who have given their lives and their blood to try to keep our great country safe,” she said.

When Russell was 19 he enlisted in the Air Force. He would go on to serve in both the Pacific and European theaters of WWII. He served as a gunner aboard a bombing plane that was shot down during the first daylight Allied raid on Berlin.

“He spoke about the German people when the plane went down they were immediately around the plane and the men with pitchforks,” Brinkerhoff said.

He was taken prisoner and survived a death march of 700 miles in 87 days during the worst winter Europe had seen in 50 years. Many men were lost, Brinkerhoff said. British tank forces eventually liberated the group of prisoners.

The two met and married after the war and for a long time after, Brinkerhoff said, her husband didn’t like to talk about that time.

“I think he really didn’t like to think about the horror that man inflicted on man,” she said.

On Friday, Brinkerhoff said she was proud to see so many residents attend the Veterans Day service at the Soldotna Sports Center. At 78 years old, Brinkerhoff hopes to keep giving the service as long as she can.

“It made me feel real good to know that people still cared about our military and were willing and wanting to give their support,” she said.

Nick Nelson, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran, spoke during the service. He said examples of courage, bravery and endurance aren’t rare in the military and as such should be recognized.

“What we do for our veterans, we still don’t do enough,” he said. “It’s not what we owe them, it’s what they deserve and what they have earned.”

Nelson spoke about going to the Military Order of the Purple Heart convention previously and seeing the bond between soldiers and veterans who gave so much for their country.

“The comradery we had there was a little bit different because everybody there left something,” he said fighting back tears and pushing at the edge of the podium as if it were his emotions rising. “Part of them. Some blood. An arm. A leg. An eye. But we still did what all the other veterans’ organizations do — we fight. We fight for the benefits and all those things those veterans and those servicemen deserve.”

Will Schwenke, a 47-year-old Army veteran, spoke about the “five most important words any veteran would like to hear.”

“It goes like this: In case no one has told you in the last 24 hours, thank you for your service,” he said.

Schwenke said he often speaks with soldiers returning from combat.

“I counsel with them and one of the main things that comes up is, ‘Look, I went over there, I knew what I was doing, I know who I was fighting for, but when I come back home, it seems like nobody cares,’” he said. “I tell them that the American people care, we care. It is just that sometimes it is hard for us to tell that to our soldiers.”

He urged the audience to walk up to veterans of any age, on any day and thank them for their service.

“Even those warriors that are hard, that have lived a hard life, you can tell the change in their demeanor when they hear those words,” he said.

Nelson said there are also other types of veterans, some not hardened by the experience of battle. 

“The other veterans I want to talk about … are you,” he said. “Everyone of you in here gave up somebody whether it was a family member or a friend. But you are still here and you are supporting the veterans. 

“But you are veterans. You may not wear the uniform or been in combat, but you’re hurt by this for your county, and you want to keep your country. The only way you can keep that country is to keep a strong military and support your veterans.”