December 3, 2020

Never Too Late to Say Thank You: Honor Flight Helps Vietnam Veteran Heal

The shrieks from one angry man at the San Francisco airport in October 1969 still haunt Ken Kerber. They echo long after Kerber returned to America from his service as an Air Force crew chief in Thailand during the Vietnam War.

“I wasn’t 50 feet off the ramp when that protestor starting shouting,” said Kerber, a retired MaxYield Cooperative truck driver.

The protestor’s venom infuriated Kerber, who had not only enlisted and served honorably in the U.S. Air Force from 1965 and 1969, but had married and started a family during this time. Kerber had been proud to serve his country, yet he couldn’t erase memories of his military service fast enough.

“When I came home, I burned everything but my combat boots and my medals as soon as I could,” said Kerber, who grew up in the Fenton area. “I started farming and didn’t talk about my military service for 20 years.”

He could have shared stories about receiving the Vietnam service medal, good conduct medal and target shooting medal, but why bother? The whole topic of Vietnam seemed to trigger nothing but rage.

“A lot of my friends were in the local American Legion, but I didn’t want anything to do with it then,” said Kerber, who had experience with T-38 pilot trainers in Arizona and became a crew chief specializing in F-4 fighter jets in Vietnam.

Time has a way of changing things, though. When Kerber had the chance to join the Brushy Creek Area Honor Flight from Fort Dodge to Washington, D.C. this spring, he took the opportunity.

“It was awesome,” said Kerber, who is amazed that he and his fellow veterans were greeted by more than 400 people and a band when they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport on May 12. “Little kids – maybe 4 or 5 years old, shook our hands and thanked us for our service. I cried like a baby, because I’d never received a thank you like this.”

Experiencing memorials to mail call

North Iowa veterans from the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II spent the entire day in Washington, D.C., visiting war memorials and sharing memories that only fellow veterans truly understand.

“We got a police escort all day, so our bus didn’t stop at any traffic lights,” said Kerber, who is grateful for donors like MaxYield that make the Honor Flights possible. “They told us, ‘You are as important today as the president of the United States.’”

This was Kerber’s first time in Washington, D.C., and he appreciated seeing the Vietnam Veterans memorial, the World War II

memorial and the Korean War memorial. What impressed him most, though, was the Air Force memorial and its missing-man formation.

When it was time to return to Iowa, Kerber and his fellow veterans were surprised by mail call on the plane. “When you were in the service, two days were very important to us—pay day and mail call,” Kerber said. “It was great to receive letters written by our family, and each one of us got a PayDay candy bar, too.”

Embracing freedom, family and patriotism

            Family is important to Kerber. He started his own family in his early 20s while he was in the Air Force. His daughter, Angela, was born October 14, 1967, less than a week before he shipped out on October 20 for overseas duty.

“I missed out on her early years,” said Kerber, who knew Angela didn’t recognize him when he returned home. “She started crying when I gave her mom a hug and a kiss.”

Kerber doesn’t regret his military service, though. He had been employed by a lumberyard in Fenton where he worked in construction before enlisting in the Air Force at age 20. “I loved being a crew chief,” Kerber said. “I liked being outside and enjoyed working on aircraft.”

While Kerber was stationed in Thailand, far removed from the worst battles in Vietnam, conditions weren’t always easy. “It was so hot, plus there was monsoon season, so our barracks were about 2 to 3 feet off the ground.”

All those memories were part of the past, though, for Kerber, who farmed for 30 years near Fenton until 2000. He also hauled livestock, mainly feeder pigs, for four years and became an over-the-road trucker for one year. In 2004, he started a new job as a trucker for MaxYield.

“I hauled everything but fuel,” Kerber said. “I mostly hauled grain and fertilizer, and I saw the whole company with my route.”

That freedom appealed to Kerber. “I loved trucking for MaxYield. It would have driven me nuts to sit in one spot all day.”

Since he retired in 2010, Kerber stays active in the local community. He sings bass with the Cornbelt Chorus barbershop group, which is based in Algona. The group performs concerts in Algona and Emmetsburg each March. They also offer church sing outs once or twice a year. The group selects a town, contacts a local church and schedules a Sunday performance.

Barbershop is fun,” Kerber said. “We want to get back into competitions, too.”

Kerber also enjoys spending time with his family, including his wife, Ruth, their children and 17 grandchildren. Many of his family and friends came to Fort Dodge when the May 12 Honor Flight landed at the airport around 11 p.m.

“My wife says I’m a soft-hearted veteran. The Honor Flight, Memorial Day and the 4th of July get me right here,” said Kerber, tapping his chest over his heart. “When someone asked if I’d do the Honor Flight again if I could, and I said, ‘Yes, in a heartbeat.’”



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