In November 2003, a Bald Eagle was found injured near The Highground. The staff at the Antigo Raptor Rehabilitation Center rehabilitated the eagle and decided to release it near The Highground. In April 2004, a small notice was placed in the local paper announcing the eagle’s release date. When the day arrived, to everyone’s surprise, hundreds of people had gathered to watch the experience!
Bob “Mingo” Mingus was chosen to release the eagle. Mingo was a Vietnam Veteran and a good friend of Board of Directors member, Don Quicker. Both had served in Vietnam in the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles at different times and in different units. An eagle is the symbol of the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles and as such holds special significance to those who have served in the 101st. Mingo’s involvement in setting the rehabilitated eagle free carried special meaning.
After completing his Vietnam tour, Mingo struggled with his combat memories and suffered greatly from PTSD. The loss of his very close friend, Dean Bonneau, was especially difficult for Mingo.
Dean was a helicopter pilot who had flown a Cobra gunship. Mingo was a combat engineer who specialized in demolitions. The only thing Mingo knew was that Dean had died in a helicopter accident and had been declared missing in action. Dean’s body had never been recovered. For decades, Mingo lived with overwhelming survivor’s guilt, much of it due to never being allowed the opportunity to assist in finding Dean’s body. Recovering Dean’s body became a life-long quest.
Years after returning home while attending an event at Fort McCoy for the installation of the new base commander, Col. Ray Boland, Mingo was introduced to the Colonel. Immediately Mingo noticed there was a 101st patch on Col. Boland’s uniform, indicating the Colonel, too, had previously served with the 101st. He noted further Col. Boland wore some type of “air wings,” meaning he was possibly a helicopter pilot and had served in Vietnam.
Mingo asked Col. Borland if he had ever known a helicopter pilot by the name of Dean Bonneau. The Colonel was startled by the question. As it turned out, Dean had been Ray’s wingman in Vietnam and had been but a few yards away when Dean died. Ray told Mingo that Dean had fired a rocket from his pod of rockets, but the rocket had misfired, exploding in the pod and setting off all of the unfired rockets. The helicopter, being made of titanium and other light materials, virtually vaporized, along with any trace of Dean. There was no body to recover. Although this ended any hope of Dean’s body ever being found, Mingo’s PTSD persisted.
The rehabilitation staff instructed Mingo on how to hold the eagle and release it. Even when the staff gave Mingo the signal to release the eagle, Mingo continued to hold it close. As the seconds stretched by, Mingo and the eagle remained motionless. Amazingly, the eagle seemed content to stay on Mingo’s arm. Finally, Mingo urged it into the air where it rose and soared over The Highground.
After the ceremony, Mingo was visibly emotional. Friends asked, “Mingo, why didn’t you release the eagle when they requested?” He answered, “As I held the eagle, I was nervous and overcome with emotion. I could feel the strong heartbeat of the eagle, and it seemed like he was scared, too. The eagle leaned into me and rested its head on my cheek. I could feel our heartbeats slowing together. I thought of Dean and it felt like the eagle was Dean’s spirit. Then, I felt a lifting of my spirit, our spirit, as if we both knew it was time. I released the eagle and said, ‘Be Free, Dean!’ In my mind, I was saying good-bye to Dean.”
When the eagle finally departed, it carried with it much of the pain of Dean’s death and some of Mingo’s PTSD.
The stories that create memories and reflect the depths of the sacrifice of our United States military Veterans and their families are too numerous to record in any one place. Yet there is a place that has endeavored to create a beautiful and inspiring natural tribute to honor Veterans. It seeks to remember those who have died serving our country, to educate the next generation about the importance of those sacrifices, and to create new ways to help returning servicemen and women heal and become whole again.