Rushford family still feels void after Vietnam

Jerry Johnson, Rushford, Minnesota, Vietnam War

Jerry Johnson of Rushford, Minnesota, was one of the first soldiers from southeast Minnesota to be killed in the Vietnam War. The family left behind still feels the scars over a half century later. (Contributed photo)

It’s been over half a century since the end of the Vietnam War, but the scars for some are still as fresh as the day it ended. For those families whose relatives didn’t make it home from the war, they feel the void that is left as big as it was all those years ago.

Rushford native Jerry A. Johnson was one of the many men who didn’t make it home from his deployment to Vietnam.

He grew up in a military family, and some of his earliest pictures as a child showed him wearing miniature Navy sailor suits. Johnson’s story is a true picture of sacrifice. Medical reasons should have kept him out of the military but he went anyway.

Family history of service

“He came from a family of soldiers,” said Rosemarie Morken, Jerry’s sister. “His father, Harvey, served in World War II in France, Germany and Austria. He had two uncles – Clarence, who served in the Army, and Wallace, who served in the United States Air Force.”

On his mother’s (Bernice) side of the family, she had three brothers who served. Two of them served with one dying in service to his country. Her brother, Kenneth, was in the Army, and her brother, George, was a pilot in the Army, serving in Africa during World War II, where he was killed. In addition, Johnson’s brother, Harold, served in the Navy from 1956-1962.

“When his father was in the Army,” Morken said, “even then, Jerry was a little soldier. He and his brother, Harold, often wore little sailor suits or Army uniforms while growing up in Rushford.’

Johnson’s love of country and family

“He loved to play baseball, go fishing and hunting, and would often spend time with his sister and brother-in-law to help take care of their eight kids,” Morken reminisced about her brother.

Johnson was born on Oct. 15, 1941, to Harvey and Bernice Johnson. His siblings included sisters Yvonne, Marilyn and Rosemarie, along with his brother Harold.

Johnson died when he was only 23. Morken described him as a quiet man. When he first went to enlist in the service, they wouldn’t take him.

“He had a heart murmur,” Morken said. “But, then they turned around and drafted him when ‘Nam broke out. He was a quiet man, so he did what he was told. Jerry entered the Army in 1964 and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where he was in the First Infantry Division.”

Johnson had only been in Vietnam around two months when that knock came at their front door. It was the knock no family wants to hear.

“He was one of the first soldiers from southeast Minnesota to die (in Vietnam),” she said. “Then came a letter from one of the soldiers with Jerry in Vietnam. He said Jerry had been sick and that they took him to a hospital for an X-ray of his lungs, which came back clear.”

The letter said Johnson had recently been sent out on detail to someplace near Saigon shortly before his death.

“Another soldier called Jerry’s mother and said he was with Jerry when he died,” Morken explained. “He said that he (Jerry) died from shrapnel on Aug. 9, 1965.” A year later, the family received a document from the military saying Johnson had been killed in action.

Johnson posthumously earned the Medal of Honor, second class, from the Republic of Vietnam.

In 1986, the family received Johnson’s Purple Heart and certificate. He also earned the Gold Star lapel pin, Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze and two silver stars, an expert badge with ribbon bar, the National Defense ribbon, and the Republic of Vietnam campaign ribbon.

In 1965, Johnson’s mother inquired about becoming a Gold Star Mother through the Veterans Administration. Women are eligible to become Gold Star Mothers if their sons are killed in the line of battle. She became a Gold Star Mother in the Winona Chapter, where the names of her son and brother are in a book that Rosemarie has.

Johnson’s service to country is honored in several locations.

The First Division was also called the Big Red One. The museum in Wheaton, Ill., has his name up on its memorial wall. He’s also listed on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.

There’s also a Big Red One Memorial at the Executive Building across the street from the White House where his name is listed. He’s mentioned in other locations like the Fort Snelling Book of Remembrance.

“He could have fought the draft,” Morken said. “He didn’t. Jerry did what his country wanted him to do.”

Military veteran transitions to farming with Prairie Pride Poultry

A simple thing like a childhood visit to the grandparent’s farm can lead to a future in agriculture as an adult.

That’s the case for Grand Island, Nebraska’s Dan Hromas, who now owns a farm he calls Prairie Pride Poultry. However, the farm didn’t happen right away as he spent several years in the military, serving his country before returning home to farm.

Military veteran opens Prairie Pride Poultry

Military veteran Dan Hromas is embarking on a new mission in civilian life by taking on agriculture as owner of Prairie Pride Poultry in Grand Island, Nebraska. (photo from iptv.org)

“I enlisted in the Marine Corps when I was 17,” said Hromas. “I served four years on active duty. Then, I joined the Army, and the Army sent me to college on an ROTC scholarship. I graduated from North Dakota State University with a Bachelor’s in Microbiology. I got my commission as a Second Lieutenant and was assessed in the Nebraska Army National Guard.”

He added, “I retired from the service last year in July.”

Why make the switch from one branch of the service to another?

“I was a heavy machine gunner in the Marines,” Hromas said. “There aren’t a lot of civilian jobs you can move into from that, so I decided to go a different route.”

Military veteran on the farm

Dan Hromas is pictured here as a heavy machine gunner during his time in the Marines. He switched to the Army before coming home to start Prairie Pride Poultry in Nebraska. (photo from midwestproducer.com)

Hromas did a lot of tours overseas.

“I’m like Johnny Cash, I’ve been everywhere, man,” Hromas said. “For example, when I was in the Marines, my first overseas stop was at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the Cuban refugee crisis in 1995.

“I also did a deployment to Okinawa, Japan in 1996” he said. “I was part of a Marine Expeditionary Force in ’98, so we took part in operations in the Mediterranean area. We had missions sitting off the coast of Croatia, and in Albania.”

Hromas added, “My last overseas trip was during the troop surge in Iraq during 2006 and ’07.”

He credits the people he served with as the most positive memory of his time in the military.

Hromas said his transition from military life to agriculture wasn’t necessarily a case of returning to the farm.

“I was never on one to begin with,” he said. “I started Prairie Pride Poultry from scratch. May of 2013 was when I first incorporated it. Later that year I got my first buildings, my first livestock, so really, the journey for me began in 2012.

“I went to Nebraska Farm Beginnings class,” Hromas said, “which was really a series of seminars. With the help of Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation, I was able to put my ideas to paper and draft a solid business plan, which I then took to the Farm Service Agency to get a microloan. I also used the plan to get some grants from different organizations.”

The farm began in York, Nebraska, until he moved to Grand Island to expand his business to 15 acres of land.

The visits to his grandparent’s farm started his interest in agriculture.

“I’m originally from North Dakota,” Hromas said. “My family has a farm there, and every other summer my folks would take my younger siblings and I to visit. We’d make the trip from Lincoln, Nebraska, where I grew up.”

He added, “I always enjoyed being around the livestock.”

Hromas, a disabled military veteran, started Prairie Pride Poultry in 2013 with a simple mission.

“To provide healthy, farm-fresh eggs to consumers,” Hromas said. “Since that time, I’ve expanded the farm to include pasture-raised broilers, and pigs.”

He takes a holistic approach to raising livestock.

“It boils down to humane treatment of animals,” Hromas said, “and good stewardship of the land. I’m a member of the Nebraska Sustainable Ag Society, which encourages consumers to ‘buy fresh, and buy local.’”

The message appears to be getting out about buying locally.

“Business has been very good,” Hromas said, “almost too good, because I often sell out. There are days I don’t have enough product, and I don’t have the infrastructure yet to expand further like I want to do.”

Demand for his eggs has reached into Lincoln.

“I market my eggs through one of the Hy-Vee Stores in Lincoln,” said Hromas. “I have people that headhunt for my eggs, and if they aren’t there, they leave their phone numbers with the dairy manager to let them know when more come in.”

He goes out of his way to keep customers informed on what he does.

“People come in and ask questions,” said Hromas, “and I answer all of them, so they buy with confidence.”