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Whitebird is a voice for veterans

Thomas Whitebird talks about how he tries to serve all veterans during a recent Pine Journal interview. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal1 / 2
Fond du Lac Veterans Services Officer Thomas Whitebird (second from left in gray) shakes hands with a veteran during the FDL Veterans Powwow in July. Whitebird will be recognized with a Veterans Voices Award Monday in St. Paul. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 2

There were 49 other young men drafted out of Carlton County with Thomas Whitebird in 1968. The next year, they were sent to Vietnam.

"There are only about 11 of us left," Whitebird said. "Only two died there, the rest ... I know Vietnam vets who died from the war decades after they returned. Four of my buddies just didn't care anymore after that.

"The sad thing is, PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) was there, but nobody knew."

As Veterans Service Officer (VSO) for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for the past four years, Whitebird can and does make a difference now.

It's a job he wishes were available when he came home from Vietnam, where he served as an Army military police officer. Now he delivers services that did not exist back then to veterans.

"The VA (Veterans Administration) is a 100 percent better than when I got out," Whitebird said. "Some of the old VSOs, it seemed like they wouldn't or couldn't do anything to help. I go out of my way to help a veteran. I guess it's just the satisfaction of knowing I did help somebody. It makes you feel good."

On Monday, Whitebird will be honored with a Veterans' Voices Award from the Minnesota Humanities Center. Minnesotans from across the state nominated veterans who have honorably served and have shown exemplary community service beyond their military service.

Whitebird said he thought someone was playing a joke on him when he got the news. Once he figured out it wasn't a trick, Whitebird said he felt very grateful on behalf of himself and the Band.

"It shows we care about all veterans," Whitebird said. "I'm trying to do a good job but I wish I'd been here 20 years ago. It's a hard job, but it's coming out pretty good."

Whitebird is one of 21 people from across the state to win the award: eight "On the Rise" Veterans (age 40 and under) and 13 "Legacy" Veterans (age 41 and over) were selected by a panel of their peers to receive the Veterans' Voices Award.

Since he started at FDL, Whitebird said he's met a lot of veterans who didn't know what kind of services are available to them. A lot of them haven't seen a VSO since the 1970s because they figured it wouldn't do them any good.

He's worked to help a Korean veteran get a long overdue Purple Heart medal, and driven numerous veterans to medical and other appointments. He connects veterans to other resources to help meet their needs. And he has been working hard to make the annual Veterans Powwow even bigger and better.

He figured there were more than 300 veterans at this year's powwow, many of them Native American, some of them not.

"You don't have to be a Fond-du-Lacker to come to the veterans powwow," he said. "Or the veterans dinner in November."

Veterans get a cap and a T-shirt and a bag of wild rice ... along with a big "thank you."

That's important, Whitebird said. And it's happening more often, another thing he's grateful for.

He tells about being at the grocery store in his Vietnam cap, and having people thank him for his service.

"There was this one kid at Walmart, probably 4 or 5, he poked me, then he stood back and saluted me," said Whitebird. "It makes you feel real good."

Whitebird, who lives next door to the site of the old hospital where he was born, took his time finding his true vocation. After returning home early from the war because his father was dying, he got a job as a janitor and school bus driver, then worked as a truck driver and in construction. In 1974, he and John Smith started the Game Warden program on the reservation.

"They called us 'rice wardens,'" he said.

Later on, Whitebird became a police officer, and even served as chief of police in Cook and Eveleth. Next he became a heavy equipment operator in Staples, Minn., before moving home and trying a couple more jobs, one in FDL Soil and Water, the other as grounds manager at the casino.

This time Whitebird reckons he found the perfect job.

"I love this job," he said. "Its unbelievable. I try to help all the vets I can. Sometimes it gets frustrating, but I keep plugging away."

Whitebird is married to Cindy Whitebird. They have four children: Joshua, Erica, Matthew and Derek

Awards will be presented at the Veterans' Voices Award Ceremony (a public event) on Monday, Sept. 11, at the University of St. Thomas Anderson Student Center in Saint Paul.

The awards are part of the Humanities Center's Veterans' Voices program that draws on the power of the humanities to call attention to the contributions and often-missed stories of veterans.

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