'I felt like I had to do something': Vietnam vet celebrates 50th anniversary of return home, fights for social justice | KSTP.com

'I felt like I had to do something': Vietnam vet celebrates 50th anniversary of return home, fights for social justice

Rich Reeve
Updated: July 03, 2020 11:29 PM
Created: July 03, 2020 11:23 PM

Bob Kessler is passionate about pedaling. 

He rides 30 to 40 miles, four days a week, between workouts at the gym.

"I've always done extreme athletic events," the 74-year-old said, smiling. "I've done a lot of triathlons, 42 marathons."

But he also believes in doing what's right, and social justice — lessons he's passed along to his children.

"If you don't get involved, and do something, you don't have the right to complain about what happened," Kessler declared.

So, on July 4, Independence Day, he and some cycling friends will be doing both.

"I love the fact that he came up with this," chuckled Gary Gerst, one of Kessler's riding pals. "I'm just going as support. The heat thing is going to be a little extra something."

They'll ride 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, to raise awareness.

They'll pedal from St. Paul to Stillwater, then to Pine Point Regional Park in Washington County, before returning home.

The two men hope to finish the trek in five-and-a-half hours.

"It seemed to me a good way to commemorate coming home from Vietnam, surviving that," Kessler said. "Paying tribute to the guys that didn't make it. Many guys that I don't even know what happened to them. And then the guys who came home in pieces, if you know what I mean."

Fifty years on Saturday, since he journeyed from Vietnam to Minnesota. Arriving home on July 4, 1970.

"I remember my friends. I remember these kids," Kessler said quietly as he leafed through a photo album filled with images from the war.

Looking through page after page of photos, it all comes back.

He was a 23-year old U.S. Army company clerk at Camp Radcliffe, in the central highlands of Vietnam.

"I was lucky," Kessler said. "I was inside base camp. Rarely was I shot at. A few times my life was threatened, but I got through."

But that plan, a bike ride to commemorate his homecoming, changed drastically on Memorial Day. And everything that came afterward.

"Then all hell broke loose over the last four to five weeks after the murder of George Floyd, and I felt like I had to do something," Kessler explained.

He's now using this ride as a fundraiser for 'Isaiah,' a Minnesota faith-based social justice group.

He's already collected more than $7,000 in pledges.

"It's many different people, many from faith backgrounds. Christian, Muslim, Jewish," he said. "Really trying to establish a multi-racial society. To help people deal with the institutional racism, fight privilege."

Fifty years ago.

A time of war, civil unrest and racial division.

"There were some horrible things that went on then, and now I'm seeing it again," Gerst said. "It's really sad to see it's still going on." 

But Gerst plans to be riding right alongside Kessler, to mark Independence Day.

"It's a cathartic event, and I wanted to turn it into something good," Kessler said. "Something I could give back."

Despite the pain, loss and anger by so many, both men have hope that this ride will make a difference.

"Given enough people to look inward, and say, we've got to do a better job of this, we can do better," Gerst said.

"I'm hopeful," Kessler said. "Because the white people and the Black people are protesting together. Not all of them, but we understand it's something that we have to work out in order for us to live in peace and harmony, and provide progress for all races."

If you'd like to donate to their cause, click here.

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