When Jenny Wilk’s dad, Red Wilk, returned home from two tours in Vietnam, the Marine stepped off the plane into Los Angeles’ LAX Airport and was spit upon. He rushed into a bathroom and changed out of his uniform into civilian clothes.
Nearly 30 years later, the experience inspires Wilk to help her dad honor South Dakota’s veterans, giving them the welcome home, they deserve. Each year, during the State Fair Bull Bash, Wilk organizes the Red Wilk Construction American Hero Award ceremony.
Since 2003, 300 South Dakota veterans have been recognized for their service to our country.
“My dad is one of the most generous people I have ever known. He is always helping those less fortunate,” she says, explaining that there are many times when they are reviewing nomination forms together, that a veteran’s experience will trigger a similar memory that her dad will then share with her. “Working on the American Hero Award project together has definitely brought us closer. He is my best friend.”
Planning for the American Hero Award ceremony begins months ahead of time. Wilk sends nominated veterans’ questions, asking them to share their wartime experiences and thoughts on patriotism.
Wilk spends hours organizing a ceremony that truly honors each veteran. During the ceremony, the rodeo announcer introduces each veteran and shares their story with the more than 4,000 rodeo attendees. The South Dakota Honor National Guard Funeral Honors Team presents each veteran with a flag which was flown over the nation’s Capitol in their honor. The Wilk family also presents each veteran with a commemorative coin they custom designed for the ceremony. The South Dakota governor and congressional leaders also attend to thank veterans. Taps are played to honor soldiers missing in action and those who lost their lives in service.
“One of the most heartwarming moments is when each veteran is saluted by the Honor Guard in their dress blues. That moment is just for them. Many of the Vietnam veterans cry because this is the welcome home they never received,” Wilk explains.
Even though she’s only 32, giving back is something Wilk grew up doing. Her grandma is Jan Manolis and she started the Jan Manolis Family Safe Center for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Her mom, Cindy, volunteers time to help victims and Wilk carries the emergency phone a few times a month.
“I grew up watching my dad, mom and grandma give back. We are a family who is passionate about helping others.”
Wilk explains that even the Bull Bash, where the American Hero ceremony is held, is the family’s way of giving back to the community of Huron. Fifteen years ago, when it was decided the South Dakota State Fair would not continue hosting a rodeo, her dad wanted to do something to help keep the state sport alive and well at the State Fair. So, he launched what would become the Red Wilk Construction/Tuff Hedeman Bull Bash.
When Wilk joined the family’s construction business after college, her dad handed the organization of the event which draws a crowd of up to 6,000 over to her. “I’ve always loved rodeo,” says Wilk, who also serves as secretary of the Heartland 4-H Rodeo. “I feel fortunate that because I work in my family’s business, and because my family is also passionate about rodeo and supporting veterans, I am able to spend some work hours volunteering.”
Wilk also volunteers her time serving on the Beadle County Humane Society Board of Directors. In this role, she helps organize several fundraisers. Her favorite is the Four Paws Pool Party. Held the day after the Huron Water Park has closed, dog owners can donate money and let their four-pawed best friends enjoy some splash and pool time.
“I love animals. It stems from my love of horses and rodeo,” Wilk explains. Wilk and her boyfriend, Bryse Letsche, share their home with three dogs: Walter, Daphne and Camielle.