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Honor Flight Twin Cities founders find healing in helping war veterans

Jerry Kyser directs a World War II veteran and his guardian to the elevators at the Hubert H. Humphrey terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. He spent the day with 78 vets, part of an Honor Flight Twin Cities tour of Washington D.C. Deanna Weniger / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ROSEVILLE, Minn.—Jana Kyser paced back and forth at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport's Terminal 2 on Saturday night, Sept. 28, greeting friends, passing out flags, directing servicemen to their posts and striking up a bagpipe band.

There's a reason her husband, Jerry Kyser, calls her the Major General.

This was Honor Flight Twin Cities' 20th homecoming event, welcoming 78 World War II and Korean War veterans back from a day of touring monuments in Washington, D.C.

When Jerry led the men into the concourse, she ordered the cadets to salute and the crowd to cheer.

"They're here!" she said. "OK, everybody, let's go!"

The Kysers founded the local Honor Flight program in 2005 as a way to honor veterans and to heal their own deep wounds from the Vietnam War.

Wounded by war

Jerry, 73, is an Army aviation combat disabled Vietnam veteran and Jana, 69, is the widow of a Vietnam vet who returned emotionally damaged and died in a drowning accident a year later.

They met in 1973 during Jerry's third year at the University of North Dakota and found in each other a deep understanding of the trauma they'd experienced.

Jana had been blaming herself for her first husband's difficulties transitioning back into society. The drowning, in which she almost died trying to rescue him, left her afraid of the water and painfully shy.

Jerry helped her understand why her husband acted the way he did. Jerry had been dealing with some of the same things, although he ignored his symptoms for years and chose to focus on helping Jana and others recover.

They married in 1976 and moved to suburban Roseville, Minn., in 1978, where they still reside. The first thing Jerry did was sign Jana up for swimming lessons to help her overcome her fear of the water. When she complained that she had no friends, he introduced her to Toastmasters, a group that also helped her overcome her shyness.

His plans worked. In 1985, she became a building manager at Hillsborough Apartments in Roseville, a job that would span a 30-year career with Steven Scott Management, where she eventually became a regional portfolio manager overseeing 8,000 apartments and 425 employees.

The former kindergarten teacher had discovered her ability to organize and manage people, two skills Jerry learned to lean on when they started Honor Flight Twin Cities.

"She's an administrative guru," Jerry said.

Reluctant hero

Meanwhile, Jerry had earned degrees in business and aviation and found he had a talent for helping people heal from trauma.

He's the executive director of the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Charity, which includes a car donation foundation. He's been vice chairman of the United Veterans Legislative Council; co-chairman of Military Action Group; a volunteer with the Stillwater Prison Veterans Group; and a pilot in the Commemorative Air Force.

He was a recipient of a 2014 Veterans' Voices Award presented by the Minnesota Humanities Center. He also received the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2016, an award presented each year by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, which honors the contributions made to America by immigrants and their children.

Yet through all those efforts, he never sought help for himself. He knew he had some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder—anger, recklessness, nightmares, authority issues—but he ignored them, saying his time in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 as an Army Huey helicopter crew chief in the First Infantry and First Aviation Brigade was nothing compared with what other veterans had been through.

"I call it 'reluctant hero syndrome,' " Jana said.

Unexpected triggers

Jerry had been on several harrowing missions and had even crashed a few times. He was injured from shrapnel from a rocket that hit the base where he was stationed. His unit's contingency plan when crashing in enemy territory was "to fight to the death and save a bullet for yourself," he said. "Otherwise, they would torture you to death."

But what bothered him most was how the anti-war movement in the states treated him when he returned and the scornful reception he received from WWII vets who said he hadn't fought in a real war.

"My PTSD got bigger when I got home and saw people burning the flag," he said. "Somebody put a peace sticker on my car. I kind of went berserk."

The sticker, a symbol of the anti-war movement, triggered a painful memory from his time in Vietnam when a 19-year-old mechanic in his unit got a "Dear John" letter from his fiancee who had gone to college and joined the movement.

"She called him a baby killer. So one night, he killed himself," Jerry said.

Prayer of Jabez

Two specific events helped the Kysers heal: finding God and starting the local Honor Flight program.

"In our 30s, we came to know the Lord in a very personal way," Jana said. Her grief had caused her to self-medicate with alcohol.

As Jerry described it, "I was a bartender, and she was my best customer."

But after a Christian women's meeting, Jana accepted Christ as her savior and said everything changed.

"She quit drinking and smoking the same day," Jerry said. His conversion took a little longer, but once he gave his life to Jesus, he found new hope, he said.

The second event was the result of a prayer they would pray every day together called "The Prayer of Jabez."

The prayer is taken from 1 Chronicles 4:10. "Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, 'Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.' And God granted his request."

They said God answered by introducing them to people who connected them to the Honor Flight Network, which "enlarged their territory" with veterans work.

"I think that the healing really started making strong roots when we started with Honor Flight," Jana said. It was a way for Jerry to serve a group of people that had caused him so much anxiety in his younger years and allow him to forgive them, she said.

Patriotic heritage

Jerry eventually did go through counseling for his post-traumatic stress disorder and was able to receive disability pay, which allowed him to quit his job and focus on helping veterans full time.

He's a patriot, he said. It's in his blood. A German relative picked up a weapon for the British in the French and Indian War in 1757, and Jerry's family has been in just about every war since. His father, James Kyser, who died in 1974, was an infantry officer in Gen. George S. Patton's army.

"I'm a war baby," Jerry said.

Fiercely protective

That legacy and his own pain from the anti-war movement makes him fiercely protective of the vets he takes to Washington.

When the 2013 government shutdown closed major monuments in Washington, a local TV station asked whether Jerry would be canceling his planned honor flight. He didn't hesitate to answer.

"I said absolutely not," he said. "Failure is not an option for us. Surrender is not in our vocabulary."

Furious to find water-filled barricade barrels set up around the Marine Corps War Memorial portraying the raising of the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, he told the bus driver to drive over them. When the bus driver refused, he yelled at the guards blocking the memorial, telling them they should be ashamed of themselves. Then, he called some of his friends in high places.

Later that day, he was told he could take the vets back to the memorial. "It seems like the water barrier drain valves were defective and all the water drained out," he said, with a conspiratorial smile.

Giving advice

His experience as a returning war veteran has given him perspectives he shares willingly with others.

To those considering military service, he says, "There are so many options that you can do. Yes, you are defending our country. It's because of you that we get to do the things that we do. Don't let anyone tell you there's anything wrong with that."

To those returning from combat, he says: "The first thing you need to do is realize that you need some help. Get signed up with the VA (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs). Know that you have people like me and others that will guide you because never again will veterans be abandoned like we were."