The Army Security Agency no longer exists. Established in 1945, it operated through both the Korean War and Vietnam War, drawing one area veteran into its web.
Duane Poppen served in the 1950s. The agency’s mission was to intercept and analyze enemy communications over the airwaves, according to an article posted on the U.S. Army’s official website.
Poppen just shrugs his shoulders when asked to describe the work he did with what was essentially an intelligence agency. By the time he served, according to the same article, the agency had “built a worldwide chain of field ‘listening stations’ in global hotspots.”
On Sept. 18, Poppen was one of 82 area veterans who was honored for his service with a trip to Washington, D.C., with Midwest Honor Flight, a non-profit which provides veterans with all-expense-paid trips to D.C. to help them find closure and to show respect for their service. He was one of four area veterans to make the trip.
Dick Ruger, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1948-53, also made the trip with his daughter Ann Rupp. While he declined to be interviewed for a story, he did describe the trip as awesome and wonderful. He was especially impressed with the service provided by volunteers who made the trip with the veterans.
Each veteran traveled with a guardian, an individual who could provide assistance. In Poppen’s case, the guardian was his daughter, Sandi Schwader, who not only accompanied him but also completed the application.
“I wanted that special time together, to do that with him,” she said. “It was very emotional at times, seeing it all through my dad’s eyes.”
As a guardian, Schwader had a different perspective than the veterans who made the trip. She was impressed with the tremendous respect shown in all aspects of the planning.
“It was absolutely fabulous. They [the veterans] were treated like royalty,” Schwader said. Even the language used throughout the daylong trip showed respect.
“They called wheelchairs ‘honor chairs’,” Schwader noted.
The trip began with a banquet on Friday night at which each of the veterans was named and asked to stand. The next morning, they were boarding buses by 3:30 a.m. for the first leg of what would be a long day.
They would travel by plane to D.C. and then travel throughout the metropolitan area on buses. In D.C., they were first greeted by a water cannon salute and then by well-wishers in the airport.
“They had signs: ‘Thank you, veterans;’ ‘Thank you for your service.’ It was so heartwarming,” Schwader said.
As they toured the city, stopping at various memorials, a tour guide talked about the sites they were passing. The high point for Poppen was the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“They were really, really sharp,” he said, indicating with his hands the Marines swinging their rifles and noting the click-click-click of shoes and rifles.
The greatest disappointment of the day was discovering the Korean War Memorial was under construction. According to the National Park Service, a Wall of Remembrance listing the names of the 36,574 American servicemen who died will encircle the existing Pool of Remembrance.
During the Sept. 18 trip, the area was surrounded by a construction fence and the juniper bushes, which were intended to represent rice paddies, had been torn up. That did not deter Poppen from examining what he could see through the fence.
“He did spend a lot of time down there, walking around,” Schwader said.
When the buses returned to the airport, the veterans and their guardians were able to board without going through security. On the plane home, the veterans received mail from area elementary school children.
“I think he had about a pound of mail. That was a surprise for him,” Schwader indicated. They’ve been going through the cards and letters together since he returned home.
“One little girl said, ‘I hope you didn’t have to drop a bomb on anyone’,” Schwader noted, laughing. “I can hardly wait to dig into some more letters with him.”
For the final leg of the journey, they boarded buses one last time and went to the Sioux Falls Arena where they were greeted by a cheering crowd. By then, it was after 9 p.m. and “hearts were full,” according to Schwader.
“That welcome home – no words can describe that,” she said.
Another group of veterans, including Leonard Jerke of Madison, will make the trip on Oct. 9. Doors open for the Welcome Home Ceremony at the Sioux Falls Convention Center Arena at 7 p.m.