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Daughter surprises dad with replacement medals

Dec. 24, 2012 - 11:48AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 24, 2012 - 11:48AM  |  
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BEMIDJI, Minn. — Two years ago, while vacationing over Christmas, someone broke into Arlin Melgaard's home.

The bandit made off with nearly everything he and his wife, Wanda, owned: a car parked in the garage, the 2001 retirement gift containing his military medals and badges, the longtime musician's electric guitars, even canned goods and coffee filters stored in the cupboard.

Over time, the couple had replaced most items, but one piece of his past couldn't be replaced easily — the shadow box commemorating Melgaard's Army and reservist career.

On Saturday, the 71-year-old Bemidji man, a 40-year veteran, received re-issued medals, badges and service stripes.

At his bedside at the Sanford Bemidji Medical Center, daughter Angie Kamin of Fargo presented him a replica of the retirement gift given to him nearly 12 years ago by the North Dakota Army National Guard unit in which he served.

"Those are all my medals," proclaimed Melgaard, when his daughter surprised him with the shadow box.

"Of all the things I lost ... that was the worst," he said. "I wondered, ‘Why the hell would anybody take medals that weren't even theirs?' It was devastating."

Last week, Kamin sprung into action to make it all come together.

"I'm just trying to give him things to remind him of the man he is," said Kamin, who relied on her father's friends to pull off the surprise. "The fact that it's Christmas is just a bonus."

First, she called Terry Bradley, the retired Bemidji High School band director who played in both the North Dakota 188th Army National Guard band and Rough Cut, a country-rock band made up of Melgaard, Bradley and other service members.

Bradley pointed Kamin to Staff Sgt. Justen Reed, who joined the Army band in about 1996 and met Melgaard, who was a recruiter and retention noncommissioned officer.

"We have pretty close ties with everybody who has been here," said Reed, adding the unit presents a shadow box to retiring members who have 20 or more years of service. "When we hear of something, we jump into action."

So, in about a day's time, Reed, who is based in Fargo, collected a copy of nearly every award Melgaard received during his military tenure. A few awards were difficult to track down, but Reed expects all will be replaced.

"[Melgaard] was always quick with a joke and had a laugh that was infectious," said Reed, who shrugs off his role in compiling the shadow box filled with awards. "I did what any other supply sergeant would have done."

Melgaard has had a distinguished career on more than one front.

Both he and Bradley joined the military in 1961.

Bradley was discharged from the Army in 1963, but re-enlisted in the Minnesota National Guard in 1981.

After 17 years in the Army, Melgaard joined Fargo's 188th Army Band in 1978 as a reservist, and convinced Bradley to join the 188th in 1986. Bradley became the band's enlisted bandmaster-conductor.

In January 2001, both men retired from the Army National Guard after their final drill with the 188th Army Band.

Melgaard, a Bottineau, N.D., native, received a two-year degree from the North Dakota School of Forestry before joining the Army, and served overseas during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

He eventually landed in Fargo, where he obtained a human resource management degree at North Dakota State University.

Melgaard then relocated in Bemidji, where he earned a master's degree in career and technical education from Bemidji State University, and continued serving in the 188th Army Band.

In 2006, Melgaard retired from his civilian job — after 25 years as an administrator with Pine to Prairie Cooperative Center, which served 14 high schools in northwest Minnesota.

Melgaard also served as an adjunct instructor at BSU for six years, and currently sits on the BSU Alumni Association Board of Directors.

Military and education played a large role in Melgaard's life. But music is his true passion.

The 188th Army Band provided an outlet for a career in music. Melgaard still plays today, taking his karaoke machine and guitar to nursing homes around Bemidji and entertaining residents.

"The people I play for are my same age," Melgaard said, noting his favorite musicians are Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and George Jones. "They listen to the same music I do."

Melgaard's infectious laugh is evident when he shares the story about touring the Elvis Presley estate in Palm Springs, Calif.

Two years ago, he was at the Presley home, one of a handful of tourists that day, when he struck up a conversation with the tour guide.

After the tour, Melgaard talked his way into playing one of Presley's guitars, which was lying on a couch at the home.

"It was cool," said Melgaard, laughing. "If there were 30 people there, it would have never happened. It's funny how things work out. The right place at the right time."

Coincidentally, it was the next day — on Christmas Eve — in which Melgaard's home was burglarized.

Earlier this year, Melgaard experienced issues with his pacemaker, a medical device used to control abnormal heart rhythms. Recently, he went to the hospital so doctors could check on fluttering in his heart.

Once there, Melgaard said he developed pneumonia and then other complications. At one point, Melgaard said he didn't expect to survive.

"I kept fighting," he said.

Unbeknownst to Melgaard, that motivated his daughter to replace the stolen military medals. She gave her father a pep talk, and enlisted help from Bradley and Reed.

"I'd do anything to help my dad," Kamin said. "He's a very strong person and sometimes we just need to be reminded of that."

A few days ago, before Kamin presented her father with the awards, Melgaard said he was just trying to get through rehabilitation.

On Saturday, buoyed by the visit from his daughter and granddaughter, Melgaard said he's focused on getting better in the short term so he can spend more time with family.

"It was hard," Melgaard said of his recent health struggles. "I'm on the mend now."

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