'I've carried the guilt for 55 years:' Vietnam vet comes to Mahnomen to heal war wounds
An incredible story of forgiveness and healing that brought two families together. All because of a young man lost to war in Vietnam decades ago.
MAHNOMEN, Minn. — The story may have started with a helicopter crash in the jungles of that war in 1966, but the final chapters are still being written at a cemetery in Northwestern Minnesota.
Everyone buried at Riverside Cemetery have a story, including Wayne McCollum.
"He loved people. He was active as a farm boy, like most," Dave McCollum said of his brother, Wayne McCollum.
Dave McCollum remembers everything about his older brother. A young 4-H kid who would enlist in the U.S. Army and head to Vietnam.
"He was 20 (when) he left for Vietnam September of 1966," Dave McCollum said.
Then, on election night in 1966, the family received the news.
"At 10 o'clock at night (we were) watching TV and there was a knock on the door," Dave McCollum said.
The telegrams came. First he was missing in action, then news came that Wayne McCollum had died in a Huey helicopter crash.
"(It was) quite devastating to say the least," Dave McCollum said.
The whole town showed up when the train brought him home.
"The funeral and the wake was packed with people in November," Dave McCollum said.
Years passed, and while life got busy, something just kept poking Dave McCollum.
"He sent me an actual incident report, which our family had never seen," Dave McCollum said.
He contacted others who were on the helicopter when it crashed and had survived. All told Dave McCollum to reach out to Wayne McCollum's mentor: Spc4 T.R. Pierce.
"My brother's letters to the family, he mentioned a Spc4 Pierce," Dave McCollum said.
T.R. Pierce. A successful businessman now, and a soldier who served in Vietnam, had trained Wayne McCullough in Vietnam and the reason Wayne McCollum was on the chopper that day as a door gunner.
"I had a chance to go to Japan on a brief R & R. I was training him (Wayne McCollum) initially because I had been there since April — he came in September — and it was my job to, sort of, take him under my wings and make sure he knew how to fly with us, Pierce said. "I get this opportunity to go (to Japan) and Wayne goes, 'I'll take your place,' and so I said, 'great.'"
When Dave McCollum first called T.R. in 1994, Pierce wept for 10 minutes. He hadn't heard Wayne McCollum's name since the war. It was again, all fresh.
"I've been carrying this guilt for 55 and a half years of why Wayne and not me there," Pierce said.
Pierce, now from Wyoming, has been in Mahnomen this week visiting the grave of the man he served with, and leaving a dime on his grave In military tradition, a dime means you served with someone in the same unit.
"I wanted to honor Wayne with my dime and my tears also," Pierce said.
"Basically, I apologized to him and I told him I was sorry, but it's been incredibly healing for me," Pierce said.
The McCollums also took Pierce on a Vietnam veteran fishing retreat at Lake of the Woods. The Brady Oberg Legacy Foundation sponsored the retreat. Oberg, a vet who died by suicide, was family of the McCollums.
"I still have Wayne in my heart, he's just in a different place right now and it is a great feeling," Pierce said.
Sometimes that's all it takes. Talking out the story. Asking for and granting forgiveness and making that visit to a small town cemetery.