Mar. 19—PRESTON, Minn. — Respect for veterans is steeped in Siri Corson's corner of the world.
The Fillmore Central High School junior took that world view and turned it into an expression of gratitude for veterans as well as some huge honors for herself.
Corson placed second in the national Veterans of Foreign Wars Voice of Democracy essay competition on March 6. It was her fourth win with the essay starting at the level of the Preston VFW to District 1, then state and nationals, for her penned piece on the topic "Why is the veteran important?"
"I always tell people, 'It hasn't set in, it hasn't set in,' but I don't think it ever will because it's just so unbelievable," said Corson, who was nervous during the national competition, but inspired by those veterans she brought bravery and courage to share from her "heart into ink" about how she sees veterans.
"My last line was, 'For now I only write in hopes my voice will carry,'" Corson said of her entry in the competition. "It's kind of prophetic in a way because it definitely carried a lot farther than I think anyone expected, especially me."
Her essay started with the familiar: The local VFW members who faithfully support the community and her great-grandfather Manford, or "Stub," who came back from World War II embedded with shrapnel pieces, an injured leg and deafness in one ear.
"In Preston, like this little town, we have a lot of heavy involvement from our veterans in our community," Corson said. "We have things that we see all the time, weekly, like our veterans will go to our football games and when we play the national anthem they'll have the color guard, and they come every single game without fail just to come march out on the field with their flags and face and then they'll walk back with the flags."
"It's just simple things like that," Corson added, "but it's really cool to see them still here, still serving their community after all those things they've witnessed and just coming back and being such a huge piece of what we have going on just all the time."
Corson, 16, also won the Patriot's Pen competition in eighth grade at the local level. Still, she would never have guessed that her essay would lead from one step in the competition to the next. She was thrilled just to make it to the state level and represent Minnesota in the national competition.
In a room full of hospitable and proud veterans, Corson pondered the moments when veterans carry the American flag and listen to the national anthem. The goal: a vulnerable thank you to "reach into the hearts of the people who've been protecting us this whole time."
"(Veterans would) come up to me and they'd say, 'There wasn't a dry eye in this room, like, you said it for us what we could never say ourselves.' And that was a huge thing for me because a line in my speech is, 'I wanted to give a voice to speak for us all,'" Corson said.
For someone from Fillmore County, Corson's victory became the new benchmark by winning state and placing at nationals. At nationals, she gladly accepted second place with shock, feeling "like a skyscraper blowing in the wind."
"The top five is a great place to be. The top four is insane. Three is no words, but you get to the top two and it's unbelievable. It's unfathomable," Corson said. "It was insane."
Pieces of her family history brought her to the competition, including great-grandpa "Stub," who fought in North Africa in the 899th tank destroyer battalion. In the battalion's first battle at
, the soldiers faced "horrific" losses in February 1943.
"They were so decimated that he ended up hooking up with a cobbled-together group of British soldiers and American soldiers that were remnants of other groups," said Eric Corson, Siri's father. "He was a scout so he went out behind enemy lines. Often it was his job to go and capture a soldier from the enemy, bring him back for interrogation, track troop movements. So he was behind enemy lines a lot and as a result, he saw some of the worst stuff. He was wounded multiple times."
Today, Eric sees how "everything that ('Stub') stood for has had this ripple effect." Stub's two brothers also served in World War II. While Stub passed away in 1998, he helped bring an Army tank to Preston.
"I never got a chance to actually meet him, so since I couldn't thank him I decided to take it upon myself to just thank all of them. And, luckily, I've gotten a chance to say it to all of them in the nation if they listened," Siri Corson said.
As a family impacted by service, the Corsons thank veterans "for laying their world down for us regardless if they lived or died, that's just a huge sacrifice," Siri Corson said.
"You drive through Preston, you'll see signs in a lot of yards that say, 'This is a veteran-friendly community," Eric Corson said, describing the town of 1,322 people, home to the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery and soon the Preston Veterans Home. "People are proud to support their veterans. This is like a puzzle piece that was meant to fit in right now, in this moment in history, click. It's like a perfect fit for this time."
Corson described veterans as "so loving" and "generous." And at every level, the scholarships poured out. In her final round, she received the Charles Kuralt Memorial Scholarship of $21,000.
"It wasn't just about (Siri)," said Tara Corson, Siri's mother. "It was like when you're representing us, you're representing us, and (veterans are) there, they show up."
The community of Preston also showed up, from VFW and auxiliary members watching the Parade of Winners event in Washington, D.C., like their Superbowl, to high school students and teachers cheering Siri on during a bus ride to a basketball game.
"They had multiple phones out and people were huddled in circles leaning over the seats just to tune in and see how this went," Corson said. "Hearing that people at home, while all these things were going on — I was across the nation, and they were still there, still supporting me no matter the distance."
Corson says she owes the most thanks to the VFW, including Ron Scheevel, Diane Johnson, Samuel Landon, Dale Hoogeveen, Sonia Tatge and John Hobert.
"It was more of giving a thanks for them serving and doing what they did even if they never got that thanks when they got back. And I was extending it to speak for us all and to describe the adjustment period of them coming back home from front lines," Corson said.