Roseville veterans advocate earns award fit for presidents, Nobel winners


Jerry and Jana Kyser pose for a photo. “She’s my great partner in this,” says Kyser of his wife. (submitted photo)

What do Joe DiMaggio, Mary Lou Retton, Jimmy Carter, Rosa Parks and Roseville’s Jerry Kyser all have in common?

All five are recipients of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, an award presented each year by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, which honors the immigrant experience and the contributions made to America by immigrants and their children.

Kyser, 71, will head to New York City for an award ceremony May 7 on Ellis Island. He says he’d never heard of the award until he was nominated, then announced as a recipient.

“I’ve just been totally blessed by this whole thing,” Kyser says, joking that, with respect to previous winners, including former U.S. presidents and Nobel Prize winners, “It’s kind of, almost out of my pay grade.”

The award, established in 1986, is recognized by both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and each year the winners’ names are read into the Congressional Record.

Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar put out a statement this month congratulating Kyser.

“I’ve gotten to know Jerry well from his work with the Twin Cities Honor Flight program,” Klobuchar said. “Through his leadership, Minnesota veterans are able to come to our nation’s capital and see the monuments built in their honor.”

Kyser and his wife, Jana, are the driving force and fundraising might behind the local Honor Flights program. Kyser says he’s helped to fly nearly 1,400 World War II veterans and nearly 1,100 of their companions to Washington, D.C., over the last decade.

Kyser, who is a U.S. Army aviation combat disabled Vietnam veteran, is involved with a number of veteran advocacy organizations. He’s executive director of MN Vietnam Veterans Charity; vice chairman of United Veterans Legislative Council; co-chairman of Military Action Group; a Stillwater Prison Veterans Group volunteer; and a pilot in the Commemorative Air Force.

He was also a 2014 recipient of the Veterans’ Voices award, which is presented by the Minnesota Humanities Center.

Still, Kyser says the trips bringing military veterans to Washington, D.C., are most important to him.

“The Honor Flight is our crowning glory because these men and woman have kept America free for us,” he says. “It’s our responsibility to honor them for what they did and not forget them.”

 

Service records

 

“I did two years in Vietnam from 1968 to August, 1970,” Kyser says. “I volunteered two times.”

His jobs in the war centered around helicopters, namely, the UH-1 Huey. Kyser says he was a mechanic, a machine gunner and a crew chief during his two tours.

A grandfather eight generations back fought in the French and Indian War, which concluded in 1763, he says, noting that someone from the Kyser line has been involved with every major American conflict from the Revolutionary War through today.

“Theoretically,” he said, “we’ve been in every stinking large war since 1775.”

Though his work with veterans dates back to the early 1990s, Kyser says the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which he watched unfold on television, were a kind of turning point for him.

“I felt like I was back in combat again,” he says. “I just knew that these kids would be back out [there] and being killed.”

Kyser says he was reminded of the shabby treatment Vietnam veterans received upon returning home. “They treated us like crap, and I was not going to let that happen again.

“I realized that I was bitter, but you either get bitter or you get better,” he says, saying that in the following years he ramped up his volunteer work.

To get the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, Kyser says he was helped by a number of people he’d come in contact with through is charity service.

“I had 28 people write letters — five retired generals that I’m involved with in different community things,” he says, adding that World War II vets from Honor Flights also wrote to the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations on his behalf.

“I really was humbled by the wonderful things people wrote,” he says.

Kyser is one of 100 recipients of the award for 2016, and one of the 3,000 who have been given the Ellis Island Medal of Honor over its 30-year history.

The trip to New York provides Kyser with another potentially humbling experience — “One of my heroes is a recipient, too,” he says.

That hero, Everett Alvarez Jr., is a former U.S. Navy commander and the first pilot shot down during the Vietnam War. Alvarez spent eight years as a prisoner of war.

Kyser says he hopes to meet Alvarez and sign him up for a speaking engagement in Minnesota.

Beyond meeting Alvarez, Kyser says the trip will provide lots of pomp and circumstance, between ceremonies and receptions. He also says he’ll visit a point of inspiration — the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood.

“We’re thrilled to do this” volunteer work, Kyser says, “and honored to represent Minnesota. It’s not about me, but doing this.” 

 

Mike Munzenrider can be reached at mmunzenrider@lillienews.com or 651-748-7813. Follow him on Twitter @mmunzenrider.

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