ST. PAUL (Tribune News Service) Earl Kothman returned from his tour of duty in Vietnam almost 50 years ago.
But on Friday, thanks to more than a year of dogged research and outreach by his granddaughter, Kothman was finally welcomed home.
Kothman, a Foley native, was recommended for a Bronze Star after his 1966 deployment for his meritorious service. But after his platoon sergeant died overseas, the paperwork for his recommendation was lost and he did not receive that recognition. Kothman said he contacted National Archives a few times over the years to reclaim it, but had no luck and eventually gave up.
And then he told his story to Rachel Petersen, his granddaughter.
"Ten years ago, I wouldn't have thought this would be happening," Kothman said Friday at a ceremony honoring him with a medal. "I was told they had no record of me being recommended. But Rachel was relentless in achieving this."
Petersen, who graduated last year from St. Cloud Tech, started interviewing her grandpa in 2014 for a VFW essay competition. She learned that he helped carry a wounded soldier out of a live battlefield with a makeshift stretcher made with T-shirts. She learned he had to run into battle to retrieve a soldier who had frozen under fire. And she learned he had never gotten his official recognition.
"It stopped being about a scholarship and really became a fight," she said Friday. "It's been very important to me to symbolize a welcome home for him."
Petersen called the National Archives in St. Louis, Missouri, and was told that her grandpa's records were likely destroyed in a fire at the building in the 1970s. She eventually got in touch with U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer's office for support. Once she had the congressman's support, she said, officials found a 60-page file detailing Kothman's service. But the official nomination file was not there.
So Petersen had to build a narrative supporting the fact that her grandpa was deserving of the award. To do that, she began attempting to contact the people he served with. She got in touch with Ed Schulz, the injured soldier Kothman helped carry away from battle.
"I believed him, and I was willing to help out," Schulz said Friday at the ceremony. "I said, what do we have to do?"
She also tracked down the last living person in Kothman's chain of command, after coming up with a list of 17 possible names, addresses and phone numbers. The last number on the list was the person she was looking for. Petersen said she and that man both cried when they connected. He lives in Indonesia, and wrote a letter that was read at the ceremony.
Petersen said she has been spending four hours per day chasing this medal, all while taking classes at North Dakota State University.
"I've gotten pretty good at doing my research," she laughed.
Her persistence made an impression on people.
"Rachel is a special human being," Emmer said. "The lengths this young lady went? We're proud to be a part of this, but it all starts with Rachel. Frankly, it all starts with Earl."
St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis also attended Friday's ceremony at the Landmark Center.
"It's never too late to honor a hero," he said. "I wouldn't miss this, to see that recognition, no matter where it was being presented."
Kothman gave an emotional speech Friday, thanking his family and saving an extra thanks for Petersen.
"Thank you," he said. "You are my bronze star."
(c)2016 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.)
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