Bob Lambert wrote in a diary during his yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam.
That year, from October of 1967 to October of 1968, in which he served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, is the only time in his life that he kept a diary.
The diary is tucked away in Lambert’s old helmet bag on a shelf in his Saint Peter house. He rarely looks at it, though he did when writing a book on his life after retiring as Eden Prairie parks and recreation director in 2007.
“It was helpful in writing that story,” said Lambert, who turned 77 on Nov. 12. “I could just go back to the pages and that whole day would come alive after just reading a few sentences.”
He admits the diary can be hard to page through. The sentences are peppered with raw language that reminds him how young and immature he was then.
“I was just 21 years old, and there were lots of things I took for granted,” he said. “I was a really pretty callous person at that time of my life. What I thought was important and funny isn’t important or funny to me anymore. I spent more time writing about how well I did on the softball team that we had over there than I did on saving someone’s life.”
His Vietnam experience does not haunt him as it does so many others who fought there. He remembers a lot of good and bad.
“I think most people do,” he said.
Remembering those who fought
Asked what Veterans Day, which was on Nov. 11 this year, means to Lambert, he takes a second to ponder the question.
“I’m not going to say it means more to Vietnam vets than other people, but maybe we appreciate it more than others just simply because of how most Vietnam vets were treated back in the ’60s and early ’70s,” he said. “They were pretty much despised, even though we were basically fighting for what our country asked us to do.”
But, Lambert stresses, Veterans Day is about remembering all U.S. military veterans who have served.
He has played his part by helping to shepherd two veteran memorials into existence.
Lambert has close ties to both communities.
Besides serving as Eden Prairie’s parks and recreation director from 1978 to 2007, he lived here from 1978 to 1999. The Purgatory Creek Park pavilion, just a few steps from the city’s veterans memorial, is named after him “for his 29 years of dedication and visionary leadership.”
A native of Saint Peter, Lambert and his wife Sally reside on a farm outside town, homesteaded by his great-grandfather.
Saint Peter memorial
Lambert led an effort by a committee of citizens to get a veterans memorial built in Saint Peter. It wasn’t an easy sell, taking about six years to finally sway the city council there to approve the possibility of building such a memorial on city land.
“I could not believe the resistance,” Lambert said.
He met with each council member individually to ask them why they hesitated.
“They kept on referring to it as a war memorial,” he remembered. “I said, ‘We’re not talking about a war memorial here, we’re just talking about a veterans memorial to honor people who are wiling to serve their country.’ And it’s not just Vietnam vets. We wanted to honor vets from the Civil War and the Indian uprising that occurred in 1862 all the way up through young men and women who are serving their country today.”
He assured them the memorial was “certainly” not to honor war.
“If there’s anybody that hates war it’s somebody who has fought in a war,” he told them.
People, he added, tended to blame soldiers who fought in those wars rather than the politicians who put them there.
After about six years of uncertainty, he and the rest of the citizen committee asked that the memorial be placed on the city council agenda for a vote on camera.
Lambert said more than 200 veterans showed up, including one Korean War veteran with a “bit of a temper.” The veteran confronted the council while the veterans cheered, Lambert remembered.
The council voted that night to allow the memorial to be built on city land.
Lambert was later told that the only reason the council approved it was that they didn’t think “Lambert and his committee” could raise the money to pay its estimated cost of $610,000.
“The memorial ended up costing $720,000,” he said last week. “We were still able to give the city $35,000 in cash to have an ongoing maintenance fee.”
He added that 4,000 people showed up for the grand opening.
“I think it’s a really impressive memorial,” he said. “Once we got approval of the design and the process, I was surprised how strongly the citizens of this community felt about that memorial and how quickly they supported it. We’ve had nothing but positive comments from people ever since it went in.”
Eden Prairie memorial
Lambert was parks director when a group of veterans came to him about wanting to build a memorial in Round Lake Park, specifically at the corner of Valley View and Eden Prairie roads.
He liked the idea of the memorial, but not at that corner. He suggested four sites to the group where he would support building such a memorial.
“We ended up at the site which I hoped they would choose which was the Purgatory Creek Park,” he said. “We went to the city council and they approved that site on the first request.”
The committee raised all the money to build it, though the city gave the group $10,000 to help pay for upfront costs, which it paid back.
Lambert helped the committee and the architect with the memorial’s design. The group was in the middle of fundraising to pay for its construction when Lambert retired.
He recently visited the Eden Prairie Veterans Memorial with his favorite teacher from Catholic grade school.
Lambert and Sister Patricia Frost reconnected a few years back when she moved to Mankato, about 10 miles from Saint Peter. He would take her out to dinner for her birthday.
“She proved to me that a good teacher can have an unbelievable impact on a kid’s life,” he said of Frost. “But a poor teacher can have the opposite.”
Lambert visited Frost in Shakopee, where she recently moved. He gave her a tour of Shakopee, eventually driving across the Minnesota River into Eden Prairie to see the park system he helped build.
They ended up at the memorial overlooking Purgatory Creek.
“She was really impressed,” he said.
Lambert — one of the soldiers honored on the memorial’s Veterans Wall — is, too.
“I still think that’s a very impressive site,” he said. “And a beautiful addition to that park on the corner.”
Editor’s note: Lambert was interviewed in 2018 as part of a Vietnam-era oral history project by the Minnesota Historical Society. That entire interview can be accessed in the Historical Society’s online collections.
In videos for TPT’s Minnesota Remembers Vietnam, he was one of two Saint Peter Vietnam War veterans to share their perspectives on serving during the war.
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