FERRYVILLE - It was a fine fall day in Ferryville last Thursday and we were a very long way from the Cambodian border with Vietnam in 1969. Yet, for some of the friends of Cliff Tollefson gathered at the Wooden Nickel Saloon, we might not have been that far away from that place and time.
The gathering of several dozen veterans and other friends of Cliff was 49 years in the making. Tollefson was badly wounded at 10:30 a.m. on Friday, June 13, 1969 near the Cambodian border, when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the armored personnel carrier where he sat in the gun turret. The shrapnel wounds to his leg have been a constant reminder of that day.
Tollefson recalled the time he served in Vietnam last Thursday, before a ceremony honoring his service. At the event, Cliff was presented with a Bronze Star and some other medals that he had earned, but never received.
Cliff said that after the RPG hit the APC, he never remembered another thing until he woke up in a hospital in Tokyo. As he recovered, he was eventually moved to a hospital in Denver, where he received treatment for a bad leg injury caused by shrapnel from the attack.
Tollefson returned to Wisconsin and currently lives in Seneca. The leg injury has never fully healed.
So, why did Tollefson have to wait 49 years to receive his Bronze Star. A couple of factors probably combined.
When Cliff was discharged from the Army, he was in the hospital in Denver, where he had been recovering from his leg wound. When he got home, he put his papers and other things from his days in the Army in a box and shoved it in a closet.
“We weren’t all that welcomed when we came back,” Cliff said matter-of-factly. “Lately, it’s been different.”
So how did it come to pass that Raymond Cliff Tollefson finally received his Bronze Star at the ceremony at the Wooden Nickel Saloon last week?
Well, it all started at the bar earlier this year, when Cliff was talking to Dave Weber, a retired DNR employee who lives in the area.
Dave was just talking to Cliff about his experiences in Vietnam. At some point in the conversation, the subject of the Bronze Star that was never presented came up. Dave urged Cliff to bring his old military records to the Wooden Nickel someday.
After looking at some of documents, Dave could see that Cliff had not received the Bronze Star and some other medals he had been awarded.
Tollefson explained it Thursday by saying the decision to award the medals was made. However, lacking a general order, they simply were never presented to him.
Dave Weber had a plan. He contacted Sue Lockwood, a local woman who he knew traveled to Washington D.C. on business.
Lockwood reviewed the records and took them to a military office in Washington. From there, she was referred to U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office for help in obtaining the missing medals.
“Cliff didn’t get a lot of the medals he had been awarded,” Sue Lockwood said after the ceremony Thursday. “The Bronze Star is one of the highest honors you can get. He received it for saving a man’s life.
“For all he has gone through, I’m happy to see this happen. The man deserved what he got,” Sue said. “He’s a true American hero. All I did was bring this to someone’s attention.”
That’s how it happened. That’s how Raymond Cliff Tollefson came to receive the Bronze Star, which should have been presented 49 years ago, at the Wooden Nickel Saloon last Thursday.
So what was it like?
Cliff Tollefson was definitely moved by the gathering.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” the Seneca resident acknowledged even before the ceremony started. Several dozen friends had gathered for the ceremony–many were veterans.
Before it was over, there were more than a few tears shed and several voices cracked while making their short statements.
Wooden Nickel owner Jerry Books, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, read from two letters. The first from Colonel Robert L. Fair, dated March 30, 1969, announced the award of the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism with a ‘V’ Device. In the letter, Colonel Fair outlined the actions taken by Tollefson under fire on the battlefield to save a wounded comrade’s life.
Then, Jerry acknowledged the work that Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office had done on Tollefson’s behalf. He read a letter from her office. Books told those assembled that despite whatever they thought politically, it was appropriate to recognize the work of the senator’s office in making this happen.
In the second letter Jerry read, Senator Tammy Baldwin reviewed all of the medals that Raymond Clifford Tollefson had been awarded for his service in Vietnam—including both the medals he had received and those, like the Bronze Star, that he had not received.
“Again thank you for your extraordinary sacrifice,” Baldwin wrote in concluding her letter. “I am grateful for your bravery and inspired by your service to this great nation we are blessed to call home.”
Then, it was Mike Lynch’s turn to take the actual medals from their boxes and pin them to Cliff’s blue American Legion jacket. After some problems pinning everything in place, Cliff faced the assembled crowd and they responded with applause.
It was a moving moment for Cliff and most everyone else.
A veteran, who had served in the 25th Infantry during the same time Cliff was there, but never knew him, was definitely affected by the ceremony.
After trying to explain some of the details of what was happening to them 49 years ago and the significance of receiving a Bronze Star, the old veteran headed toward the door. He paused before leaving to say what Sue Lockwood and so many others had said about Cliff at points during the event.
“He is true hero,” the man said clearly before he turned back for the door.