BEMIDJI -- Wendell Affield has made a point of helping as many people as he can, even if he has to do it one person at a time.
It’s because of that caring spirit that the Minnesota Humanities Center will recognize Affield with a 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award. Affield is scheduled to receive the honor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul on Monday, Sept. 11.
“Minnesotans from across the state nominated veterans who have honorably served and have shown exemplary community service beyond their military service,” the Humanities Center said in announcing the awards.
The Humanities Center selected Affield, of Shevlin, as one of the 21 recipients based on a number of projects with which he’s involved. This spring, he began hosting writing workshops for veterans and has spoken publicly about issues related to post traumatic stress disorder. Aside from his role as an author and speaker, Affield also helped supply the Bemidji Community Food Shelf with a meat packaging unit.
While Affield will accept the award, he clarified many of the projects have been collaborations.
“It’s a humbling experience,” Affield said about the recognition. “Nothing I do, I do by myself.”
Previous local recipients of the Veterans Voices Award the past few years include Brian Ophus, Army National Guard, of Bemidji and Joe Vene, Army, of Bemidji
Part of Affield’s journey to help others began with a personal project to document his own history with war. By the time he was 20, Wendell had served two tours in Vietnam with the U.S. Navy before he was wounded and shipped home. For years, those experiences -- those memories -- bounced around inside him like they do for so many veterans.
For a long time, he never did anything about it. However, time after time, he kept hearing the war stories from World War II vets who’d come into the butcher shop where he worked.
“A few of them started sharing their trauma stories with me from World War II. And, more than once, the old guy got choked up with tears coming down his face and walked away and never came back,” Affield said. “It made me realize that I had a story to tell, and that if I didn’t tell it, it was going to die with me.”
This spring, Affield started working with a doctor at the VA Clinic in Bemidji and a professor from BSU to host writing workshops for veterans. It was through his own writing and his own experience with PTSD, that Affield realized how therapeutic it could be putting one’s thoughts onto paper.
“Our goal is for the veteran to get a memory down on paper,” Affield said. “Once you put them down on paper, you put boundaries on them, and you can start looking at each experience more objectively.”
Aside from his writing workshops, he’s also helped those throughout the community in other ways. For example, he worked with a local businessman to bring a meat packaging unit to the Bemidji Community Food Shelf. The food santry buys meat in bulk, and the machine then repackages it into smaller units. Several weeks ago, the food shelf reached a milestone of 11,000 pounds of meat that had been repackaged.
“A huge part of the expense of meat is the labor involved in the process,” Affield said. “My theory was that we could supply it to the food shelf at about half the price.”
Other times, Affield’s helped a single person or a family that needed assistance. When a friend died in the late 1990s, Affield helped the man’s widow reclaim her late husband’s military benefits and climb back out of homelessness, a journey that took more than a decade to complete. Similarly, when a fellow war veteran started frequenting the food pantry, Affield helped him start the process of upgrading his discharge status so he could possibly receive the benefits he’d gone without.
However, regardless of whether the project includes working in writers’ workshops, helping those down in their luck, or working with the food pantry, Affield said he always tries to help those who need it. And then he moves onto the next.
“I’m a firm believer that if you can help one person, it’s a success,” Affield said. “That’s what it’s all about: helping people one at a time.”