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Cottage Grove’s Pat Beard honored following harrowing health journey

Pat Beard is pictured with his wife, Sharon, and son, Tim, at the Aug. 18 Twins game. Beard is a Vietnam War veteran who’s suffered health problems that he said were linked to his exposure to Agent Orange during his time in the military. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Pat Beard, of Cottage Grove, salutes the U.S. flag after he was selected to raise it at a recent Minnesota Twins game as part of the team’s Military Mondays program. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

The National Anthem played as Pat Beard hoisted the American flag prior to the Aug. 18 game between the Twins and the Kansas City Royals.

Beard, of Cottage Grove, was honored during one of the club’s Military Mondays at Target Field.

He served in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee in 1968 and 1969.

“The Twins were one of the first organizations to support the Vietnam vets back in the sixties,” Beard said. “Those were turbulent times.”

Most of the fans at Target Field could not have known that the trim 66-year-old who hoisted the Stars and Stripes and the POW flag had spent two years tethered to an oxygen tank. Or that a life-saving lung transplant nearly came too late.

“I would have been dead if I didn’t get that transplant,” Beard said. “The doctors told me I had two hours left to live.”

‘They were dropping Agent Orange’

Beard grew up in St. Paul Park and graduated from the St. Paul Park High School in 1965, the final class of seniors to do so. The school was shuttered and Park High School opened the following year. He enlisted in the Navy and served near Danang in Vietnam.

“It was an adventure, and I don’t mean like a nice adventure,” he said.

Asked if he’d taken enemy fire, he replied: “Everybody did.”

Ultimately, however, he said it wasn’t bullets or mortars that nearly killed him — it was Agent Orange, a herbicide that the military sprayed in jungles to kill foliage and eliminate potential hiding places for the enemy Viet Cong.

Beard recalls being on patrol one day when they heard the sound of engines overhead.

“A couple planes went over,” he said. “We thought they were dumping fuel. It was a real fine mist. They were dropping Agent Orange.”

After his tour of duty, Beard came home and attended the University of Minnesota on the G.I. Bill. He and wife Sharon bought a house in Cottage Grove, where he used to hunt pheasants and rabbits as a boy with his father and uncle.

In 1982, he ran for the Minnesota House after then-Rep. Mike Sieben announced he was going to step down. A member of the DFL party, Beard represented south Washington County from 1982-94.

Beard also served on a congressional committee established by then-U.S.House Speaker Tip O’Neill to address issues affecting military veterans.

Beard’s breathing problems worsened as he got older, and in March 2012 he suffered acute respiratory failure. For the next year he was in and out of the hospital. A respiratory specialist  diagnosed him with sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease that obstructs breathing when inflamed tissues in the lungs calcify into nodules. Beard said the doctor told him that his illness was the result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

During Beard’s hospital stay, his son, Tim, proved a vocal advocate for his father, confronting doctors and other medical personnel when he felt that they weren’t doing enough.

“His whole life he’d always fought for others,” Tim said. “And now he was so defenseless.”

Saved at 11th hour

His father desperately needed a lung transplant, but because of a genetic mutation that allegedly was caused by his illness, his body would have rejected a normal lung. He needed a donor lung with the same gene.

Tim said a doctor told them, “You have a better chance of winning the lottery.”

But the elder Beard was saved at the 11th hour by a donated lung from a 21-year-old man from Ann Arbor, Mich., whose organs were harvested after he was killed in a fight.

After he’d gone home and had the chance to recover, Beard placed a call to the donor’s mother.

“The first words out of her mouth were, ‘I’m so happy to hear you breathing because it means my son is still alive,’” he said.

Like many Vietnam veterans, Beard filed a claim with the Veterans Administration to obtain compensation for his illness. In April, Sieben, an attorney and longtime friend, represented Beard at a hearing before the Board of Veterans’ Appeals at Fort Snelling. They were connected to a judge in Washington D.C. via a video conference.

“The judge granted our claim and ruled that Patrick’s sarcoidosis is causally related to his exposure to Agent Orange when he was in Vietnam,” Sieben said.

Sieben pointed out that Beard had been awarded four Bronze Stars for heroism while in Vietnam, a fact that Beard never mentioned.

“Pat’s service to his country not only as a decorated Naval veteran in combat and then also as an outstanding state representative for 14 years, speaks for itself in terms of his service to his country,” Sieben said.

It was Tim who wrote to the Twins organization about honoring his father, who got a 30-second standing ovation when he hoisted the flag at Target Field last week.

“He’s never been one to toot his own horn,” his son said.