BISMARCK, N.D. — Virgil Horst served in the Vietnam War. He made it back to North Dakota. He didn't have friends taken as prisoners of war or who were considered missing in action.
But he and several other veterans in the Bismarck area always have remembered the men who not only didn't come home from that conflict but whose families did not get the closure of knowing what had happened to them. For those families, there were no gravesites to visit, just questions left unanswered.
"Where do they go for a POW-MIA?" Horst asked. "We forgot about a very important group that never did come back to American soil."
The Vietnam Vets Legacy Vets Motorcycle Club, of which Horst is a member, and the Second Brigade Motorcycle Club have been working for several years on a plan to build a memorial at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery. It would honor the 360 men from North Dakota held as prisoners of war or considered missing in action from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War.
The groups have raised more than $140,000 toward the $200,000 cost of the memorial. Now they are hoping the public can help with the remaining money so they can begin construction after Memorial Day.
Horst said he, Rick Colling and John "Butch" Olson make up the board of directors for the North Dakota POW-MIA Memorial and have been planning it for about six years. But it was at a funeral almost three years ago that they really began to push the plan into motion.
Air Force Maj. Tom Beyer was missing in action in Vietnam in 1968. He was declared dead 10 years later, but his remains were not found until more than 40 years after he disappeared, when bone fragments were found and identified as his through DNA testing. Beyer's funeral was held Dec. 18, 2010.
Some men came home after being prisoners of war, and some bodies of those considered missing in action have been located over the years, like Beyer. However, the final resting places of many remain unknown. Of North Dakotans considered missing in action in the Vietnam War, eight are still unaccounted for, according to the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office. Of those in the Korean War, 28 remain unaccounted for.
Horst said he, Colling and Olson decided at Beyer's funeral that they needed to work toward getting a memorial for the men who never came back from war before their names are forgotten to time.
The group approached the North Dakota National Guard, which operates the cemetery, about putting a memorial there.
"It wasn't a very hard sell," said Col. Steve Tabor, director of facilities and engineering. He has reviewed — and made only slight tweaks to — the design proposed by the groups.
"I think it's an appropriate memorial to have out at the Veterans Cemetery," Tabor said.
Fundraising for the memorial began in earnest on Memorial Day 2012. The groups have held fundraisers, solicited businesses and accepted donations for the cost, plus the $10,000 to $13,000 they have spent on advertising, brochures and architectural designs. No federal or state money is being sought or used for the project. A man who had been a prisoner of war during World War II came to one fundraiser and was recognized for his service.
"You should have seen the tears flowing that night," Horst said.
The memorial will consist of granite walls etched with scenes from each conflict and bearing the names of all 360 men considered POW-MIA from North Dakota. It will be set back into the hillside north of the visitors center. The names of people who give at least $100 toward the memorial's completion will be listed on a kiosk at the cemetery.
Horst said the groups are thankful for those who have given and allowed the project to continue. He looks forward to the day when there is a physical reminder in the state of the sacrifice of those 360 men and their loved ones.
"America should not forget about its prisoners of war or missing-in-action people," Horst said.
To donate, contact Colling at 701-391-0032, Olson at 701-223-3353 or Horst at 701-667-8802. Donations can be sent to Starion Financial, P.O. Box 848, Mandan, ND 58554.