OTTER TAIL COUNTY, Minn. – For many veterans, the memories of war can be difficult, even painful.
But a Vietnam War veteran in Otter Tail County learns that fellow soldiers will follow him half a century after their mission is over.
“I signed a huge $13,000 contract with the Atlanta Falcons,” said John Nordgaard.
Nordgaard’s road to Vietnam actually started on the soccer field. A standout quarterback at the University of Minnesota-Morris, he had a tryout with the Falcons.
For him, making the team meant playing in the NFL. To be circumcised meant to go to war.
“When [coach] Norm Van Brocklin called me to cut me, he said, “Swede, what do you think you’re going to do now?” And I said, “I’m afraid I’m going to Vietnam.” Shortly after that I did,” said John.
He became a medic who spent 13 months and seven days in Vietnam. And like many soldiers, John saw things he’d rather not remember.
“It was very hard for me. But I think it would have been very hard if I hadn’t had Eleanor,” said John.
“Very proud of him. He was one of the older guys in his unit and he took care of a lot of other people,” said Eleanor Nordgaard, John’s wife.
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And he was recognized for it. Local newspapers even wrote about his time in battle and how he saved lives.
When the day finally came to go home in the spring of 1971, John packed up his medals and mementos and shipped them back to the US. The problem is that they never made it home.
“Most of these things didn’t matter until all of a sudden you get older and older and say, ‘Jeez, you know, that would be neat,'” John said.
Years passed without a sign of John’s Vietnam box. But a few states away, in Michigan, Peter LundBorg and his wife Joan were trying to solve a decades-long mystery.
‘I’m amazed. First of all, I can’t believe it’s been in our basement all this time,’ Joan said.
Peter was the postmaster of John’s company and responsible for the mail during the war, although the men never met. All Peter knew was that a soldier’s box had been sitting in his basement for 52 years with no address on it.
“I had a name, and that’s all it was,” Peter said. “If you had to go back 50 years, you just couldn’t find where people were.”
Peter thinks John’s address was torn off when soldiers went through the mail during inspections. Not knowing where to send it, he took it home, but it never quite left his head.
“I had to get the mail through, you know, deliver that mail,” Peter said.
So a few years ago, Peter’s son researched the name John Nordgaard and sent an email to someone he thought was a relative. It turned out to be John’s daughter.
That email got stuck in her spam folder. Four years after it was sent, she finally saw the message and responded, confirming that John was her father and that the box belonged to him.
“It’s kind of hard to put into words that it finally, you know, actually happened,” said Peter.
The two veterans began sending letters to each other, and just before Memorial Day, it was arranged for Peter to drive to John to personally deliver his mail.
“You’ve heard the term ‘mail’.” I thought this was really slow, but at least I got it. But when he brought the box I still didn’t know what was in it,” said John.
That’s where it got really interesting, with the LundBorgs and Eleanor watching. John pulled out random memory after random memory from his wartime days.
“Tapes from the football games after the year we both graduated,” John said.
But the further he got down, the more sentimental things got. A Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and then at the very bottom of the box the Medal of Valor, earned while under enemy fire.
“If any of them will bring tears to my eyes, this is the one that means the most, because I lost a few soldiers on that night when I deserved this,” said John.
The two families talked for hours that day. For Peter, the mission was accomplished after half a century.
‘Tears. He had tears. I had tears and Eleanor had tears,” said Joan.
“It’s just about getting on with things in your life. Finally we have those to check off,” said Peter.
Funny how an ancient mystery can lead to a new friendship.
“It was fun, exciting and oh my god it’s real. I almost get goosebumps thinking about it now,” said John.
The families plan to visit each other again later this month. While the LundBorgs live in Michigan, the Nordgaards live on Otter Tail Lake in the summer and return to Milwaukee during the winter months. There, Peter delivered John his box of memories.