The sound of babies and women crying can cause painful memories to come up for Donald Grunewald. They are memories that never leave him, they cause flashbacks and have affected many aspects of his life.
Grunewald, a Watertown native, who now lives in Cambridge and is a member of the Lake Mills American Legion Post 67, was drafted into the United States Army in 1966, about six months before he was set to go to college. He did his basic training in Missouri and then went to Fort Lee Virginia. He was then assigned to the 4th Battalion 503rd Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade in Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam.
“We were a support team, making sure the supplies got to the front lines,” Grunewald said. “When the supplies would come in we would make sure they got loaded up and got out to the field. We would ride on the trucks.
Once they got on the trucks they weren’t allowed to stop.
“We had to go through no matter what to make sure the supplies got through to the location.”
After his retirement from JC Penny Co., where he worked for 28 years Grunewald decided to go through and read the letters he sent his then girlfriend and eventually wife Linda, while he was in Vietnam.
“I opened some letters up and I said was I really there,” he commented, saying he felt disconnected from his service. “In one case a letter said, ‘traveling down the road, couldn’t see them while delivering supplies but I heard crying, babies crying, women crying and a lot of shooting going on. I said we have to stop and help them.’ ‘They said no we have to get these supplies delivered. We’ll check it out on the way back.’ We came back, and it was all done we didn’t hear anything, so we just went back to our post again.”
He had four friends from high school killed in Vietnam.
“I had quite an experience over there.”
Grunewald also discussed the distress of seeing fighter jets leave Cam Ranh Air Base for North Vietnam and not all of them returning.
“Ten or twelve would go out at a time and some would be missing,” he said.
The experience drew all of the soldiers serving together.
“I had a lot of bad experiences over there.”
Grunewald now sees a counselor on a monthly basis which helps him deal with some of the things he experienced during his time in Vietnam.
“I didn’t talk about it until I joined the American Legion,” he said of his experiences. “Then I found out there were other people going through my same situation. They’ve been a big supporter of vets.”
He joined the organization in Lake Mills about six years ago.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has been really good to him Grunewald said. When attending his yearly appointment with the VA he found out he had heart disease, then prostate cancer, eventually he received a pace maker. He was diagnosed with Agent Orange, which was used during the war to clear the foliage.
“It’s like a bomb. It explodes in a big area. It burns everything and kills it.”
Over time the effects of Agent Orange deteriorate the body.
When he came back from Vietnam in 1967, he and other soldiers were warned not to talk about their experiences. The increasingly unpopular war claimed the lives of 58,000 American service members and wounded more than 150,000.
“I’ll never forget this,” he said of being discharged at Seattle, Wash. “They told me people don’t like you back here in the United States, so make sure you get out of uniform, put your civilian clothes on and don’t talk about it.”
Unlike the benefits bestowed on returning World War II veterans known as the “greatest generation” Vietnam vets were looked down upon.
After his service Grunewald received his degree from Madison Business College in sales and marketing. He worked for JC Penny as a manager and worked all over the state. He was married May 25, 1968 to his high school sweetheart. The couple has two sons Christopher (Shannon) and Brad (Stephanie). The couple has five grandchildren. This last year he was president of the JC Penny Co. Alumni organization.
It took Grunewald three years to get on the Badger Honor Flight, but he finally made his way to Washington D.C. on May 18.
His son Brad accompanied him on the flight. His costs were sponsored by the Tyranena Ladies Club.
“It was a long day,” he said. “The volunteers were fantastic. They watched us and took care of us.”
There was a welcome when they arrived in D.C. When they arrived, police cars escorted the buses through the city.
“We saw all the memorials. The best one and the most crowded was the Vietnam wall.”
While he was there he found the names of his friends from high school. He also really enjoyed the Korean War Memorial.
“They are made so well. They look like real people.”
He received about 80 letters while he was on the plane to read.
“I got letters from all over the country.”
He received a much different homecoming this time around.
“You come through the doors and you see all the people holding up signs with welcome back,” he said. “It was quite an experience…You see people of all ages. They were four or five people deep. There were Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts. It was very nice coming home to see that, because Vietnam veterans did not get that at that time. We were looked down upon, it was discouraging.”
Members of Post 67 took a bus to greet Grunewald and fellow Lake Mills veteran Greg Hesse.
“We were assigned to do a duty and that’s what we did,” he said of his service. “I get depressed every so often and I see someone once a month.”
Sometimes when he hears people crying it’s still a trigger for him or a big bang and jets flying over.
“It helps a lot to talk about it the experiences of Vietnam.”
Gruenewald is a member of the Legion Post 67 executive board and says the community of veterans has been helpful for him.
“It was just like the movies, but it wasn’t the movies it was real life.”