Wings and Warriors

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The National Eagle Center in Wabasha, Minnesota works to connect Americans with the majestic – and previously endangered – national symbol.

Now, a new program is helping the center reach out to veterans across the state, and the country.

A Vietnam veteran, with a very special connection to one of the area’s most recognizable eagles, is helping unite wings and warriors.

"The eagle is our symbol of freedom,” said Robert Snitgen. “That's one thing us veterans are willing to give our lives for. That's what we die for."

Snitgen joined the Navy in December of 1961 and served two years on river boats in Vietnam. “One of those I was an adviser on a Vietnamese river boat,” he said. “Gunners mate. I like to destroy things”

Although it was his later struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder that nearly destroyed him.

"I just kinda' blew,” Snitgen said. “I was homicidal, suicidal. They had locked me up in a VA hospital up here, Minneapolis VA. And when I got out, my meds for my anger and depression, I would not get around strangers. I trusted nobody. I just stayed at home, locked up."

Just when he thought he’d lost his battle against PTSD, Snitgen says help came on the wings of an eagle.

"A friend of my wife said to bring me to the eagle center. Working with the eagles turned my life around. And that's why I take them up to the VA hospitals now. Other veterans like myself and even other veterans who have lost limbs or head damage and stuff, they've helped them out."

And while every eagle is a symbol of freedom, the folks at the National Eagle Center say one in particular – named Harriet – has a special connection with the service members she visits.

"Harriet is, she's a wounded warrior, she's an injured bird,” said Program Director, MaryBeth Garrigan. “She's got an amputee and head trauma like many of these soldiers that have been coming back and identify with her immediately."

"They gave her 48 hours to live,” Snitgen added. “She's a survivor. She's been through a lot. She understands what these veterans are going through."

"I think it boosts your spirit a little bit,” said one of the veterans who met Harriet at the Minneapolis VA Hospital.

"Us Vietnam vets didn't get a big welcome home, although I don't complain that they're getting it now,” added another. “But, when something like this is done for us, we really appreciate it."

"To see the eagle, it's like seeing the flag,” said one Vietnam veteran. “Makes the hair stand up on your neck."

Snitgen says Harriet also touched the life of a soldier, recently featured on an episode of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice”.

He says Army Corporal Shane Parsons lost both his legs in an Iraqi explosion. He says Shane died four times before they got him on the operating table.

In an e-mail to the National Eagle Center, Shane’s mother said, “words are not enough to explain the way my son, Shane, bonded with Harriet. It gave him the chance to focus on something other than his direct injury.”

Adding to the ranks of Harriet’s heroes.

"As long as I can do this, I'll keep doing this,” Snitgen said.

The National Eagle Center hopes to expand its “Beneath our Wings” program to include VA hospitals across the country. In fact, Harriet will visit the Tomah VA for the first time later this month.

Garrigan says she’d also like to take Harriet to military events, like homecomings and memorial services.

For more information about the National Eagle Center, click on “featured links” at the top of your screen.

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