Local veterans answer the call for help for one of their own moving to town

Published 12:22 pm Tuesday, September 12, 2023

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Some people move to a new area to take a job. Others for schooling. Some move after experiencing a calling.

Sandy Gessler, a retired Army officer from Grand Forks, North Dakota, falls into the later category. That’s because she had never been to Albert Lea until last Wednesday.

“I lived in Warroad, Minnesota, at one point, and I figured if I could live in the southern part of [the state] it’s got to be warmer,” she said. “That’s the only reason.”

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After seeing aerial photos, she decided to move to the area from St. Petersburg, Florida.

How she wound up here was unconventional. Born at Fort Ord and describing herself as an Army brat, her decision to serve was simple: She decided to enlist straight after high school following the advice of her father, who served during the Korean War. Gessler’s grandfather was in World War I.

Besides growing up in the military, she spent almost two decades in service.

“Did my Army tour of duty, got out, married, had kids, went back into the North Dakota National Guard for four years,” she said. “Got out, had more babies, went back into the Army Reserve for the remaining 12 years.”

She moved to Florida for retirement and was active in the local American Legion, and was there for three years before she started having health issues after getting her thyroid removed.

That caused her to develop breathing issues, and she was recently diagnosed with the beginning stages of multiple sclerosis.

“Now I’m going to be needing care from my family,” she said.

So she decided to move to Minnesota, where a good portion of her family lives.

Complicating the move was the presence of Idalia, a hurricane that — while not playing a role in her decision to move to the area — did affect her relocation timeline and her financial situation.

In fact, during the night of Aug. 28, the roof of her mobile home in Florida was torn off.

“We awoke to a large noise, it was a horrendous noise,” she said, adding that after the winds and rain stopped, she went outside only to discover half the roof was gone. There was also extensive damage to the ceiling and walls.

She was also set to close on the property Sept. 4, but with the damage the buyers backed out. She also hadn’t spoken with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We were sitting there just devastated,” she said, noting the potential sale was the means to fund the relocation and furnish the Albert Lea home.

Gessler had to develop a new plan, which resulted in her flying to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and taking a bus to Albert Lea.

“One week can change a person’s life,” she said. “Granted, one minute can change a person’s life.”

She described the move as “crazy,” closed on her new home at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and took a bus to Albert Lea.

“I just walked in here with my suitcase,” she said.

But she wasn’t alone, and decided to reach out to veterans organizations for assistance.

“I had to reach out for help because the money wasn’t there to do anything,” she said. “… In one week [Idalia] had us from being excited to devastation.”

She described that week following the hurricane as being full of emotions.

Living through Idalia also stimulated her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I felt very overwhelmed,” she said, adding she reached out to Freeborn County Veterans Services Officer Jeff Dahlen.

After learning about a veteran in need Friday, Mark Schuler, co-founder of Wood-n-Hearts out of Glenville, jumped into action.

Schuler was inspired by his brother Edmond “Butch” Schuler, who served in the Vietnam War.

“He came back from Vietnam and he had a dependency issue on alcohol,” he said. “He did get himself straightened out with help from the VA system.”

Each furniture set given to a veteran is free, with either the company, a charity or individuals providing mattresses, box springs, bed frames, sheets, mattress pads and pillows.

“We build full bedroom sets for our veterans,” he said, noting Alden American Legion Post 404 was a big supporter of Wood-n-Hearts.

The organization has been in existence for roughly four years, and has delivered “way over 100” bedroom sets. This year alone they’ve delivered 53 sets.

Gessler described the reception from the local military community as “fantastic,” and was appreciative of the work Dahlen had done.

The decision to reach out to him seemed natural.

“That’s what we do,” she said. “We know when we’re in a new town and you don’t know anybody and need help, to reach out for our county service officer. That’s his job.”

Larry Weigel, adjutant of Alden American Legion Post 404, heard about Gessler’s story after she called Dahlen.

And while he was only at Gessler’s house to help Monday, Greg Sundholm had earlier brought a lawnmower, while Ole Olson, commander of Albert Lea American Legion Post 56, donated some furniture.

Her biggest goal in the immediate future: Get her kids here.

“I wish I had moved here 20 years ago, raising my family here,” she said. “It is so relaxed.”

She’s also appreciative of being in a place she felt she didn’t have to isolate in.

Once everything in Florida is settled, Gessler will be living with her two daughters, one who currently resides in the mobile home in Florida and is working with FEMA to sell it.

“We’re both in a position in the last week doing things we’ve never done,” Gessler said.