By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER — Retired St. Peter school principal Bill Dixon knows well the challenge of relating the past to the present for a gym full of teens.
“You take a shot and hope it works,” the Vietnam veteran said Monday following a Veterans Day program at St. Peter Middle School/High School.
Dixon, the event’s guest speaker, said the intent of his message was not to preach but to give students some food for thought regarding the price of freedom.
“These students are getting ready to start making decisions for themselves,” he said, hence the closing words of his address: “What does Veterans Day mean to a young person like yourself? Only you can answer that question.”
In his talk, South Dakota native Dixon spoke of going into the U.S. Army in 1968 with blithe indifference.
“I knew people were dying over there, but that’s about it. I had no strong feelings about the war. The world was larger then, and living in central South Dakota without the global connections we have today was sort of like living in a culvert.”
He said that disconnect ended with a sobering thud when his military transport plane landed in Vietnam. He said on the flight over, guys had been laughing, playing cards, but upon landing the mood grew somber.
“I remember thinking, am I going to leave this place alive?” Ultimately, 58,000 U.S. service personnel didn’t.
Dixon served in an artillery unit, firing daily cannon salvos at targets up to six miles away. He said his crew never saw the enemy nor learned the results of the assaults.
“Our missions were what’s known as ‘enemy harassment.’”
Dixon served his requisite 11-month stint, extended it for a few more months, then gratefully went home to South Dakota.
“For me the Army was like downhill skiing — did it once, don’t want to do it again.”
He said it was only in retrospect that his perspective changed on how he and his fellow soldiers fit into the broader scheme.
“Freedom doesn’t just happen,” he told the students, rhetorically asking them: “Are you going to be a responsible citizen, or are you going to moan and groan and do nothing? Freedom is not free, and it never will be.”
The Veterans Day program at the school began anew last year after a decades-long absence.
At the conclusion of Monday’s program, a list was read of St. Peter High graduates who have served in the military since World War II.