Kirk DeCora Hopinka remembers the day he found out his older brother, Elliot, had died in Vietnam.
“I remember it like it was a couple years ago,” Kirk said. “It was so surreal. It was a hot August day and I saw that two uniformed men had parked down the street and were walking toward our house. They told my mother that he had been killed. It opened a floodgate of pain.”
A special memorial flag-raising ceremony at the Ho-Chunk Nation Tribal Office Building was held on Elliot’s behalf, marking the 50th anniversary of his death. He was killed on Aug. 16, 1968, during a battle.
Participating in the event included many area American Legion Posts, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Marine Corps League. Traditional Chief Clayton Winneshiek spoke about honor and duty before the meal and Gordon Thunder gave a prayer.
Elliot was 10 years older than Kirk, so he always looked up to him as a father figure. As Kirk became an elder this year, Elliot would have become an elite elder.
“I learned a lot from him, about sports and about being a man,” Kirk said. Their father died when Elliot was 15 and Kirk was 5.” They grew up in Wyeville.
Elliot was learning electronics in the Twin Cities and was transferred to the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse when he was drafted. He could have continued his education and avoided the draft conscription, but he felt an obligation to duty, so he decided to go.
In the fall of 1967, Elliot entered the Army and became a combat engineer.
“Part of the reason he decided to go is that being Ho-Chunk, he had a sense of duty to country and people,” Kirk said. “Also, the Ho-Chunk people are a warrior society. When your number comes up, you go.”
He is the only enrolled Ho-Chunk member who was killed in action in Vietnam, Kirk said.
Kirk also has felt an obligation to serve his country and his people, having enlisted in the Air Force in 1978, then enlisting in the Coast Guard, and then in the Army.
“I remember when he came home for the holidays just before he went into the service. We were living in New Lisbon at the time. There was a time it was just the two of us together, just him and I visiting. I was 10 years old and he was 20. We talked about family – we talked all night. The next morning, at 5 a.m., he had to be at the bus stop in Tomah and he had to wear his uniform.”
Elliot played football in high school and, before he left, he taught Kirk how to do the basics so that he could compete in the annual “Pass, Punt and Kick Contest.” With his advice and help, Kirk was able to place second in the competition.
In January 1968, Elliot was sent to Vietnam. Recently, Kirk was able to find a reel-to-reel audio tape of Elliot in April 1968, when he had been three months in Vietnam. Elliot had sent it home at the time to give his family a more personal message. Kirk was amazed at how young he sounded, like a teenager.
He also remembers Elliot going to basic training and how much he had changed from that experience as if he had matured a great deal in that short time.
When his mother and siblings learned about Elliot being killed, the support from extended family was quite amazing, Kirk said. His mother was a single parent with eight children, including Elliot and Kirk.
His mother was the oldest of several sisters, so immediately the extended family gathered and many of the aunts cooked and proved help in the house.
“My family has missed him every single day since,” Kirk said. “He’s missed a lot of life during the last 50 years. For us, every day is Veterans Day and every day is Memorial Day.”