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Larry Lee Nieken

Photos of Vietnam veterans found

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One receives unexpected posthumous gift

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Thanks to family in Pequot Lakes and Nisswa, the late Sgt. Earl Derby now has a photo for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photos for Robert Harold Kunkel of Fort Ripley and Larry Lee Nieken of Hillman have also been located.

Vietnam veteran Robert Ahles has been on a mission since 2013 to help locate photos for Vietnam veterans from Minnesota who were killed in action. When he started, there were nearly 600 photos missing from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, including Derby’s.

Lena Bernard of Nisswa read a story on Ahles’ mission in the May 29 Pineandlakes Echo Journal when she saw her nephew’s name.

“I was only 7 years older than he was. He was my favorite little guy when they came around,” Bernard said of Derby.

Being close in age, Bernard was close with Derby when he was very young. As they grew older, they grew apart. Bernard still remembers him well enough to say he was quiet, but enjoyed good jokes.

“He didn’t do all that great in school, and he quit school I think when he finished the eighth grade or ninth grade. He didn’t graduate,” Bernard said.

Partially due to Derby’s early high school departure, his photo was hard to find.

To date, Ahles has helped locate approximately 280 veterans’ photos with the help of local American Legion Posts, newspaper archives, VFW posts and high school graduation photos. Derby never had any graduation photos, making him harder to find.

“I still get excited when more photos are found and posted. The Vietnam War has been over for more than 40 years and in many instances it is very difficult in locating photos or relatives. Frequently it takes a little detective work to locate that picture, but each photo found is considered a victory and one step closer to having a picture posted for each Minnesota veteran that died during the Vietnam War,” Ahles said.

Bernard said Derby worked small jobs after he dropped out of school and eventually went into the service. She cannot remember if he was initially drafted.

“He finished his stint in the service, and then when he came out he had some bills to pay,” Bernard said. “He couldn’t seem to get hired by anybody, and he went back in. When he went back in was when he got killed.”

When Bernard saw Derby’s name in the newspaper, she knew she had the key. It was a yearbook from a training camp in Missouri. Amidst the faces of many well dressed cadets was Derby.

“All this stuff gets saved over the years and it isn’t any good for anything for anybody. Everyone is dead and gone, so I’m glad somebody could use it,” Bernard said.

Bernard and daughter Karen Tulenchik of Pequot Lakes contacted the newspaper, which received Derby’s photo on May 29, just in time for Derby’s birthday.

“It was wonderful that it was his birthday yesterday, and I was so surprised I couldn’t believe it,” Bernard said at a later interview.

If he were alive today, Derby would be 72, but thanks to a voluntary decision to return to action and serve his country, he now rests next to his parents in Greenwood Cemetery in Nisswa.

With the help of Ahles’ research, Bernard was able to give her “favorite little guy” one more birthday gift to honor him at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

“It is just great to get more photos for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund of those servicemen and women that died in Vietnam. Now they will have their photos posted, like so many others, to make their memorial site much more personal for relatives, friends and other visitors,” Ahles said.

Suzanne Luchka had a similar experience.

“I was very interested. After I read through it and found my second cousin’s name (Cpl. Larry Lee Nieken of Hillman), I contacted my aunt and asked if she had a picture of him,” Luchka said.

Nieken also enlisted in the Army willingly. He was deployed at the same time as two cousins. He was killed by gun or small arms fire in Quang Tin Province on July 8, 1970.

“He was a fun-loving guy. He was a nice kid. He was older than I am, but I remember the day he told me he had joined the Army,” Luchka said.

Duane A. Blanck of Nisswa also contacted the PineandLakes Echo Journal with a source of photos of Robert Harold Kunkel of Fort Ripley. Blanck was Kunkel’s high school classmate.

Ahles gave thanks to Tulenchik, Bernard, Luchka, Blanck and all those who have helped him find photos.

“I wish I could have helped more, but I’m glad I was at least able to help him find one more photo. I hope he gets the rest of them, too. It’s a really nice thing to have,” Luchka said.

Ahles is looking for photos of other veterans from surrounding communities, including Darrel Gene Dorman of Hackensack, James Jay Hochstetter and Arthur Joseph Turner of Brainerd, Marvin James Wilson of Crosby, Carl Leonard Carlson of Swatara, Alvin Edward Kurtz of Hillman, Lyle Archie Kloek of Little Falls, William Oscar Wagner of Bertha, and Roger Dale Jensen of Staples.

If you have photos of any of the veterans listed, contact us at news@pineandlakes.com. Photos can also be sent directly to Ahles at robertahles@yahoo.com or 552 West Oakes Drive, St. Cloud, MN 56303.

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