Just before Thanksgiving, brothers Richard Essler of Sauk Centre and David Essler of Alexandria traveled to Vietnam with a group of veterans, finding closure at the place where their brother, Ronald, had been killed serving in the Army 51 years ago.

Ronald Essler was a carpenter in the Brooten area before he was drafted into the army in 1966. He was shipped out in 1967 to Chulai, near the coast of Vietnam. He continued his trade as an Army carpenter, building barracks and other structures.

One day, Ronald was one of the men called out to the Que Son River Valley, near an area controlled by the Viet Cong. He landed in the village of Que Son by helicopter Thanksgiving Day Nov. 23, 1967, and was last reported heading with four other men towards Hill 63, so called because it was 63 meters high.

Ronald and another member of his five-man party were killed soon after landing, somewhere between Que Son village and Hill 63.

“My mom and dad never got over it because we were celebrating Thanksgiving,” Rich said. “We didn’t hear he’d been killed until five days later, and then it took two weeks for his body to come back. That was tough.”

Later, both Rich and Dave Essler joined the Army, but both were sent to Germany. They did not forget about their brother’s sacrifice.

“My brother and I had been planning our trip for 51 years,” Rich said. “We were a close-knit family. We finally had a chance to do it, and we jumped at it.”

The Essler brothers found support from Bryan Allen and his mother, Karen Allen, of Swanville; they organized and spearheaded the trip. Karen was the group’s leader in Vietnam – this was her third trip, and her first trip had been with her husband, another veteran of the Vietnam War, to help him recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.

There were 18 people on the trip: 11 veterans, five wives, one son of a veteran and Karen.

Two of the veterans were Sauk Centre residents Tom Krick and Greg Kluver. Krick served in Vietnam from 1970-71.

“I just wanted to see the country at peace again,” Krick said. “It is an extremely beautiful country; the mountains, ocean, cities growing up, what were villages are now a metropolis, it’s amazing.”

Kluver also served in the Vietnam War from 1974-75 as part of an F-14 squadron on board the USS Enterprise.

“I was always aboard the Enterprise, so I was never in country or on land,” Kluver said. “There was always a question mark in my mind as to how it looked and what it was actually like. I always saw it from closed-circuit TV on the ship, but I wanted to go there and actually see for myself.”

The trip lasted from Nov. 7 to Nov. 21.

Nov. 10, on one of their first days in Vietnam, Rich and Dave Essler and Kluver went on a side trip to Que Son with their local guide and interpreter, Newt. There was only room for the four of them in their SUV; the roads were too narrow for buses.

They drove through the Que Son village to Hill 63, on top of which was a small monument to the Viet Cong. The hill was in a fertile area of the valley, with rice paddies and the mountains about one mile away. 

“For 51 years I’d been thinking about this,” Rich said. “I finally know what closure means. I don’t have to shed any more tears. It was a very good feeling.”

After leaving the hill, their guide took them to the other side of Que Son village to the area where Ronald’s helicopter had landed. There they met an 82-year-old farmer who had always lived near Que Son, and he had been a leader of the Viet Cong near that area. There, he explained the history of the military presence in the region, starting with the U.S. Special Forces casing the area in 1963.

The group had a surprise waiting for them when they got back to the village.

“We stopped on the opposite side of town, and Newt pulled into a little shop,” Kluver said. “We thought we were just getting some bottled water. It was actually a little restaurant, and we must’ve stayed there for an hour visiting with the locals. They wanted to ask us questions.”

The locals mostly asked about what the group thought about the Vietnamese people and the war, and Dave even got into a discussion about the U.S. presidents of the 1960s and ‘70s.

“Another thing that they said was that they were very happy that we took the time to sit there and answer questions that they had,” Kluver said. “They said that’s not usually something that foreigners did.”

The 18-person group went to other Vietnamese sites on their trip, including the floating markets of the Mekong Delta, the site of the My Lai Massacre and the Cu Chi tunnels that the Viet Cong would use as hideouts to ambush enemy troops.

Overall, the group found the Vietnamese people to be friendly towards the visitors, particularly the younger generations.

“I never felt unsafe,” Rich said.

During the Vietnam War, American soldiers returning home were not often given a hero’s welcome. To avoid ill treatment from protesters and opponents of the war, they were advised to not wear their uniforms.

“We came home as individuals,” Krick said. “We didn’t come home as 20-30 guys.”

Kluver remembers trying to grow his hair long; long hair was the fashion in the 1970s, in contrast to the short military haircut.

However, when the group returned home in 2018, their reception was quite different.

“When we came back, we were met at Upsala by the fire department, first responders and the sheriffs,” Rich said. “All the way to Swanville, 9 miles, every farmer at every place was at the end of their driveway, waving flags. It was very emotional.”

Overall, everyone feels the trip went well. The group plans to have a reunion in Swanville in December before the year is over.

“When you’re with 18 people for that amount of time, you get pretty close,” Rich said.