Thursday, April 7, 2011

You could read an American history book.

Or know Merlin “Mike” Bruning of Carroll who passed away at St. Anthony Regional Hospital last week at age 85.

Same difference, really.

Mr. Bruning helped shape the history of the 20th century.

One of my great privileges was to work with Mr. Bruning over the course of about a decade to raise funds and otherwise promote the monument that now rises majestically from the ground at Veterans Memorial Park in Carroll. Mr. Bruning was the heart of the project, a fact recognized during the dedication as he sat uniformed, front and center, for the program at the American Legion.

It’s easy to see why Mike Bruning was a popular guy at veterans’ gatherings.

Mr. Bruning was a veterans’ veteran, in the truest sense. He could relate to a lot of people, cross generational lines. One of the last times I saw Mr. Bruning was in Coon Rapids where he attended the funeral of Army Spc. Shawn Muhr in February.

Bruning, as much as anyone I’ve ever interviewed and known, understood what it meant to live for his country.

Fought in World War II?

Bruning, a Breda native and St. Bernard High School graduate, was a gunner in a bomber in the European Theater.



He was the man sitting in the bubble at the bottom of the plane, almost completely exposed to enemy fire.

In his fifth mission, Bruning and the crew of the plane he was in at the time crash-landed after the plane was incapacitated.

The crew repaired the plane and flew it back.

Impressive.

OK, maybe you’re a little young for World War II.

Korea was your war.

You want to pull up a chair, grab a cold one at the VFW or Legion and talk about that for a while.

Bruning was your man there, too.

He re-enlisted for Korea.

Bruning was a senior jumpmaster for the 11th Army Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky.

During this period he made many jumps with night trainees.

All right, so you appreciate those men who served in Korea and World War II, but you’re a Vietnam veteran. You are looking for somebody to talk with who really knows what it was like over there.

Remarkably, Bruning could stick around for this conversation as well.

He was in Vietnam, too, in 1963, as a member of the Special Forces. He went over the day John F. Kennedy was buried.

“We were supposed to be advisers in Vietnam,” Bruning said in an interview with the Daily Times Herald.

“Supposed to” sums up a lot about Vietnam.

Bruning enlisted in the Army Air Force at age 17, while still a student at Breda.

As soon as he turned 18 he went to war.

“I was the youngest in my group wherever I went,” said Bruning.

By the time of Vietnam Bruning was one of the older guys around.

In the period between the two wars — World War II and Vietnam — the Army switched from brown to black shoes.

The younger men in the Vietnam era would say of Bruning, then in his 30s: “There’s a guy from the brown-shoe Army.”

With the three wars Bruning had many a story and lesson.

One that sticks out is his description of being on board a plane used to transport liberated prisoners from Hitler’s concentration camps.

That drove home the reason for fighting the war.

“People did what they had to,” he said.

Humble words for valor so great.

There is no effort sufficient to thank Mr. Bruning’s family for his service.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address comes to mind: “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far beyond our poor power to add or detract.”

Simply put, we will never know another Merlin “Mike” Bruning. Godspeed.