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Every year, the Minnesota Humanities Center, a nonprofit, presents the Veterans Voices Awards to servicemen and women who continue to contribute long after they’ve taken off their uniforms for the last time. Here are the stories of some who were recognized this year.

The legacy: Tom and Mike McLaughlin

Tom and Mike McLaughlin have more in common than many fathers and sons.Both enlisted in the Marines, and at the same age (19). They saw action as combat infantrymen and came home to Mankato with a deep commitment to others who served.

Since their return, Tom, 70, and Mike, 33, have devoted much of their lives to honoring Minnesota veterans.

Mike McLaughlin was a college freshman when U.S. troops moved into Afghanistan, a year after the Sept. 11 attacks.

“I couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore — I needed to step forward,” said Mike, now a husband and father of two young children. “Growing up the son of a wounded combat veteran helped me appreciate that serving your country is an honorable thing to do.”

When Mike told his dad he was going to enlist, Tom, who was 20 when he lost his left leg in a firefight in Vietnam, felt concern — and pride.

“I told Mike, ‘You don’t have to do it. But if you do, I’m proud of you,’ ” said Tom.

Growing up, Mike had watched his father, a peer volunteer, counsel servicemen and women who had lost limbs.

“There are things that I know from 50 years of being an amputee that no physical therapist is going to tell a young veteran,” he said. “A guy like me, even though I’m older than their fathers, can give them some hints that may make their lives easier.”

Tom’s hard-won experience with the Veterans Administration helped Mike when he returned from two deployments in Iraq.

“Because of the nature of his injuries, my dad could walk me through the VA and that streamlined my access to the G.I. Bill and health care,” Mike said.

After he left the Marines, Mike graduated from college, married and began a career in the private sector, volunteering as a veteran’s advocate all the while. He eventually left his job to work full time for the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, a nonprofit that assists homeless veterans. A year ago, he took a job as the veterans service officer for Blue Earth County.

“They are my people,” Mike said. “I saw that it could have been me that struggled if I wouldn’t have had my dad’s example.” □

The high-flier: Raymond Wilson

Ray Wilson was one of just a handful of black helicopter pilots in the Vietnam era. He mentors veterans who have been charged with crimes.
Ray Wilson was one of just a handful of black helicopter pilots in the Vietnam era. He mentors veterans who have been charged with crimes.

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Wilson made a bet with his life when he enlisted in the Army in 1968.

“It was a shoo-in that I would go to Vietnam,” said Wilson, 70, of St. Paul. “But I had a dream I had to go after. My desire to fly was stronger than my fear. I was going to be a pilot — or die trying.”

Wilson had wanted to fly since he was a kid in New Jersey, where he’d ride his bike to the airstrip outside of town to watch planes take off and land. When he got out of college, he took a job teaching, but saved his money for flying lessons.

“I went to three airports before I found an instructor willing to teach me. I can only surmise it was because of my race,” he said.

That flight instructor said the Army needed pilots, so at 22, Wilson signed up. After basic training, he went to flight school (one of three African-American pilots in his class of 85). He was sent to Vietnam, where he piloted Iroquois helicopters, better known as Hueys. An Army chief warrant officer, he spent a year delivering supplies, ferrying wounded soldiers and manning the controls for combat assaults.

“I got a lot of looks,” he said. “People had never seen a black pilot.”

After the war, Wilson stayed on, spending 22 years as an Army pilot, stationed in Europe, the Middle East and Central America.

“For a boy who had never traveled more than 200 miles from home, my military career showed me the world,” he said.

When he retired, he moved to Minnesota to work for Northwest Airlines, then took a job flying medical helicopters.

“When I flew into a small town in outstate Minnesota and people would see a black pilot get out of the helicopter, it might have changed their idea of what African-Americans can be and do,” he said.

Now, Wilson talks to school kids as part of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. He also volunteers as a mentor in Ramsey County Veterans Court, regularly meeting with veterans making their way through the criminal justice system.

“I’m awed and amazed at how judges and prosecutors are helping vets regain their dignity and productive citizenship,” he said. “I’m glad to play my small part.”

The pathfinder: Elizabeth Steele Whitbeck

Elizabeth Whitbeck joined the Marines Women’s Reserve Corps in 1943, where she helped train pilots. After her discharge, she continued to volunteer.
Elizabeth Whitbeck joined the Marines Women’s Reserve Corps in 1943, where she helped train pilots. After her discharge, she continued to volunteer.

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When Whitbeck arrived for basic training during World War II, there wasn’t a uniform for her. There were so few female enlistees in the Marine Corps that she had to wear a man’s shirt and roll up the legs of the oversized coveralls.

“They didn’t have boots for us,” said Whitbeck, 96. “I got blisters doing my parade ground drills in my sandals.”

Raised in upstate New York near the Canadian border, Whitbeck volunteered as a plane spotter for the Royal Canadian Air Force. When the United States joined the war, she was determined to do more than be a lookout, sell bonds or tend a victory garden.

“I was outraged after the attack on Pearl Harbor,” she said. “I saw the men marching off to war and I wanted to march with them.”

She enlisted in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserves in 1943, went to boot camp, then trained as an instrument flying instructor at the Atlanta Naval Air Station. She was among 10 female Marines who taught fighter and bomber pilots headed for the Pacific.

After VE Day, Whitbeck worked with rehabilitating veterans until she was discharged as a staff sergeant in 1946. While living in Manhattan, she met and fell in love with Bill Whitbeck, a Navy lieutenant and Minnesota native. After they married, they settled in Minneapolis. Even while raising a family, she always volunteered.

“I knew how to organize and start things up because I had that training in the Marine Corps,” she said. “I wanted to be of service in my community.”

Widowed since 2013, Whitbeck is in an assisted living facility, where she’s recovering from a broken hip. Although she’s using a wheelchair, she hopes to be walking for her 100th birthday.

“I’m proud to see women represented in the military today,” she said, “and I’m proud that I did my part for my country.”

The advocate: Lindsey Erdmann

Lindsey Erdmann encountered sexual harassment during her service in the Marines. She continues to fight for better treatment for servicewomen.
Lindsey Erdmann encountered sexual harassment during her service in the Marines. She continues to fight for better treatment for servicewomen.

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Erdmann’s military career is in the past, but her three years in the Marine Corps continue to shape her future.

Erdmann, 26, volunteers for the Veterans Affairs Mental Health Council at the Minneapolis VA Hospital. She also co-organized the council’s participation at Stand Down, a homeless veteran outreach event.

“I want to help women veterans who have mental health concerns as they come out of the military,” said Erdmann, who lives in St. Paul. “I’m a member of that community, so I can be a peer advocate for women who struggle.”

Erdmann enlisted from her hometown of Janesville, Wis., at age 19. While on active duty, she was deployed in Albania, Spain, Jordan and delivered humanitarian aid in the Horn of Africa. No matter where she went, she was disturbed by the sexism that she experienced in the military.

“I was subjected to sexual harassment and I think you would be hard-pressed to find any woman in the Marine Corps who didn’t have that experience,” said Erdmann. “In the modern era, that behavior should not be tolerated.”

As an advocate for other women in the military, she has continued to fight for better treatment for servicewomen.

“The gender issues are very troubling and the military’s victim-blaming culture isn’t changing fast enough,” she said.

Earlier this year, Erdmann graduated cum laude from the University of St. Thomas’ School of Social Work and has begun a career as a staff advocate at a holistic mental health clinic.

“I have a heart for social justice,” she said, “and I want to be a voice for those who suffer and have experienced trauma.”

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.