On Feb. 23 at the new state veterans cemetery near Preston, Wayne Uptagrafft intends to keep his word to a fellow veteran who died last year.
“I made a promise to this veteran that if something happened to him while I’m still alive, I would take care of it,” Uptagrafft said. “I’m going to fulfill it.”
“He was a lonely old man, I can tell you that,” Uptagrafft said. “He didn’t have many friends.”
Uptagrafft was ill himself at the time of Duklet’s death, so other members of the local Korean War veterans club had Duklet’s body cremated, the Post-Bulletin (http://bit.ly/1Ss8A7P ) reported. Uptagrafft was able to contact one of Duklet’s sisters, but she was not in good health and could not make arrangements for a funeral service.
So Uptagrafft went to work, trying to obtain Duklet’s service records and arranging a proper burial.
He was able to work with Rep. Tim Walz, of Minnesota’s 1st District, to get Duklet’s records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis free of charge. Then he let surviving members of Duklet’s family know what he was planning. It turns out Duklet, who had been born in International Falls, and his siblings had been placed in an orphanage in the 1930s. While three of the children were eventually adopted, Duklet was not. His military record indicated that at the time of his enlistment in 1950, Duklet listed his occupation as a farmer in Todd County.
How he eventually ended up in Rochester is not known. Uptagrafft, himself a Korean War veteran first ran into Duklet at a local grocery store. “He had a veterans cap on, and he was in an electric chair,” Uptagrafft said. “I got to talking to him.”
After that, Uptagrafft regularly picked up Duklet and drove him to the Korean War veterans meetings at local cafe. He said Duklet was quiet with a good sense of humor. “You couldn’t help but like the guy,” Uptagrafft said.
Duklet, Uptagrafft and their colleagues are part of a cohort of about 2,600 veterans over the age of 75 — many of them Korean War vets — living in Olmsted County, said Neil Doyle, county veterans service officer. The Duklet case is relatively unusual, but not surprising, Doyle said.
“I’ve been here eight years, and I suppose there have been about six to 10 veterans that are estranged from their family at time of death,” he said. In some cases, veterans have been afflicted with chemical dependency or mental health issues that caused separation. Or, they may have simply outlived their spouse and siblings.
“Then it comes time for the funeral and there’s nobody around,” Doyle said.
That won’t be the case for Duklet, now that Uptagrafft, a Special Forces member who fought behind enemy lines in Korea, has reported for duty.
“We know there are other vets out there who are not taken care of, who are being ignored,” Uptagrafft said. “I want veterans to know they can get help.”