Melvin Boesen joined the military in 1949 after graduating from Brandon High School, and eventually his three younger brothers followed suit. Bernie signed up for the U.S. Army, with Melvin, Gary and John all opting for the Navy. The brothers, who were born at roughly six-year intervals and raised in Millerville, all served overseas.
"This is something we felt we should do, serve our country," Bernie said. "Dad was pretty proud of us, that we all served. (He said) 'My boys went and fought for our country.'"
That wasn't all Clarence Boesen said.
"I hope they teach you a thing or two," Gary recalls his dad saying when he left home.
"He told me the same thing," Bernie said. "I looked back and he was wiping his eyes."
After reading in the Echo Press about a nonprofit organization that flies veterans to Washington, D.C. for a tour of memorials that stand in their honor, the brothers became interested in going on one of these Veterans Honor Flights.
However, the trips put a priority on older veterans and those in ill health, and are primarily reserved for Korean War and World War II vets. Gary and John served during the Vietnam War, and Melvin had died in 2017.
Bernie, who had enlisted in 1956 a few years after the Korean War ended, got a call about going on the next Honor Flight, and he took a stand.
"I won't go unless my brothers can go with me," Bernie said. For that to happen, he was told that he might have to wait several years. "I said I'd take my chances on that."
Bernie is 82, but since their dad lived to be 94, their grandmother 104 and their great-grandmother 100, he thought time was on his side.
Kevin Mahoney, who has spearheaded the local effort to get veterans onto these flights, recognized how special it would be to have three brothers go together. So did his contact in Fargo, who had had two brothers go before, but never three. The applications were carried into a board meeting, and all three were accepted.
A whirlwind trip
The Honor Flight was the same weekend as the wedding of Bernie's granddaughter, Erin. All three brothers attended the ceremony at First Lutheran Church and the reception at Gathered Oaks, where they ate, danced and even had a couple of cold beers before heading to Fargo later that night, and then for the nation's capital early the next morning.
It didn't take long for the brothers to realize the two jam-packed days in D.C. would be one of the most memorable trips of their lives.
"Before we left, the whole airport was solid people. It was that way when we came home, too," Gary said.
"I had talked to a guy who said you won't believe it. You can't imagine," Bernie said. "When we got off the plane in Washington, the reception we got was impressive. It was tear-jerking."
Stepping off the bus, they were greeted by hundreds of people, and with bands and honor guards.
"It was unbelievable," Gary said. "It was so crowded you couldn't hardly walk."
Along with three other veterans from Alexandria, they were whisked around in a big coach bus with a police escort, so they didn't spend valuable time stuck in traffic. The sign on the front of the bus that announces its next stop said HONOR FLIGHT, and that led people who were lining the streets to stop and applaud, put their hands over their hearts and salute the veterans inside the bus. The brothers found those impromptu reactions to be quite moving.
They toured all of the monuments and memorials. They went to Arlington National Cemetery, taking in the endless sight of crosses for the 400,000 buried there, and witnessed the changing of the guard.
"No matter which way you look, those crosses are lined up," Bernie said.
At the Vietnam Veteran Memorial Wall containing the names of 58,000 members of the armed forces who died during that war, Gary found and etched the name of Carlyle Guenther, a soldier from Leaf Valley who was killed in Vietnam.
"There's so much that goes on, it's overwhelming really," Gary said.
During the banquet that Sunday evening, they received a surprise visit from John Boesen's daughter, Lori, who was in town for a conference.
"I said, 'I can't believe that gal looks like John's daughter,'" Gary recalls of spotting someone across the room. He thought nothing more of it until he heard the words, "Hi, Uncle Gary."
The three brothers were sought-after subjects for media covering the event, and conducted interviews with two television stations, three radio stations and a writer from Minnesota. It wasn't easy to put into words what this trip meant, when all of the memories from the service would come roaring back.
Gary, who retired from 42 years with Douglas County Hospital in 2007 and now does hospice work for veterans, knows how difficult it can be for veterans to talk about that time of their lives.
"They've said that they told me a lot of things they've never told their family," he said.
When they were interviewed by a television reporter, Bernie recalls John saying, "This is going to be tough. I don't know if I can do it."
That caused John's brothers to realize they didn't know all that their younger brother did during the Vietnam War. They all get together for their birthdays, and this month when they did so in St. Cloud for Gary's 76th, they heard a little more from John, who also lived in Alexandria until moving to Andover a year ago.
"I hope someday he can tell us all that really transpired," Bernie said.
For Gary, his years in the Navy allowed him to travel the world. For three years he was stationed out of Naples, Italy, and saw 26 countries. He was anchored in the harbor in Cuba during the Missile Crisis.
"I loved the water, no doubt about it," he said.
Bernie saw several countries, too, as the only one of the four brothers in the Army.
"I just felt I should protect the ground," he said of his sea-faring brothers, chuckling. "They were sitting out there in the water, and I felt I should make a path for them."
Their sister, Carol, also wanted to serve, but their father wouldn't allow that to happen.
"He said, 'No way in hell," Gary said. "He had heard enough about it from the boys, I guess."
They grew up in a hurry in the service, and Bernie, who owned Bernie's Gas & Oil in Millerville for 53 years, maintains it is a wonderful education for kids who don't know exactly what they want to do with their lives. He was then asked to reflect on that part of his life.
"People who don't go (into the service) don't know what an individual goes through for the freedom we have in this country," he said. "Everyone who has been in the service can vouch for that."
ABOUT THE FLIGHT
Here's information about the May 19-20 Veterans Honor Flight provided by local coordinator Kevin Mahoney of Alexandria:
• The flight consisted of 90 veterans - 89 men and one woman. Also on board were four doctors, eight nurses, a film crew, 60 veteran helpers (mostly relatives), 36 staff personnel and 60 wheelchairs.
• Sixteen veterans on the flight served in World War II, 67 in Korea and seven in Vietnam.
• Fifty-eight served in the Army, 17 in the Navy, nine in the Air Force, five in the Marines and one in the Coast Guard.
• The Veterans Honor Flight of North Dakota/Minnesota has now flown 1,359 World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C.
• Costs associated with the trip: chartered plane (183-passenger) - $85,000, hotel rooms (100) - $25,000, four tour buses - $12,000, meals and snacks - $28,000, police escort - $1,500. This totals $151,500, which is covered through donations and fundraising. The flights are provided to veterans at no charge.
Here's information about the six Alexandria veterans who were on the May 19-20 flight:
Bernie Boesen - raised in Millerville, now lives in Alexandria. Enlisted in the Army in 1956 and served three years. Assigned to Company B, 83rd Engineer Battalion in France. After the Army, he owned and operated a service station for 53 years, built two new homes, purchased farmland and started a lakeshore development. He and his wife, Maureen, have two daughters and one granddaughter.
Gary Boesen - raised in Millerville, now lives in Alexandria. Joined the Navy in 1962 and was discharged in 1965. Worked as a boiler tender aboard the USS Perry 844, based in Naples, Italy. His ship was anchored in the Bay of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For the last 42 years, he's been director of engineering at Douglas County Hospital (Alomere Health). He and his wife, Colleen, have three sons and three grandsons.
John Boesen - raised in Millerville, now lives in Andover. Joined the Navy in 1968 and was discharged in 1972. Worked as a radarman/radar navigation, boat control ship-to-shore and in ship, boat and aircraft detection. He worked for the Department of Corrections for 30 years. He and his wife, Melanie, have four children and eight grandchildren.
Lee Doering - lived in Gaylord and now in Alexandria. Served in the Army 1946-1947. Assigned to the 19th Regiment, 24th Division, seeing time in Kyushu, Japan as a special service supply sergeant. He was a partner at a law firm in Marshall for 38 years before retiring in 1993. He and wife, Joan (who passed away in 2015), have two daughters and three grandchildren.
Wayne Farnberg - originally from Redwood Falls, now lives in Alexandria. Joined the Army with his twin brother in 1946 and served until 1949. Re-entered the Army Reserves in 1962 where he remained as a judge advocate general office until retiring in 1987. Seven years ago, at age 84, he retired from practicing civilian law. During his service, he saw time in Florida, California, Minnesota, Illinois and Washington, D.C. He and wife, Dorothy, have three children and five grandchildren.
Don Nolting - originally from Shevlin, now lives in Alexandria. Served in the Army from 1954-1956. Stationed in Seattle as a military policeman. After his service, worked as a civil engineer as part of Widseth, Smith and Nolting, Inc. until his retirement. He and his wife, Mary, have two children and two granddaughters.