My Life My Story - Tomah VA Medical Center
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Tomah VA Medical Center

 

My Life My Story

My Life. My Story.

My Life, My Story begins with a simple idea: to honor a Veteran’s story and improve their care experience by providing VA care teams with an easily digestible summary of the Veteran’s life, in his or her own words.

By Amanda Meinke, Patient Centered Care Coordinator
Monday, April 26, 2021
I was born on February 28, 1944 when my father was on a ship to Italy to fight in WWII. He was wounded and about two years later he came home. My family never told me that my father was not normal because of the war. He developed a very bad drinking problem and became an alcoholic. We had a very poor relationship, but I wanted my dad to love me like my mom did. I had two brothers and two sisters. I noticed that my father treated them differently than he treated me. Now I understand that it’s possible that if a father is not there when a child is born or is absent, that may leave an effect. At the time, I didn’t understand all of that. I just knew that I was driven for my father's love.

We had a lot of dysfunction in our home and there was always so much tension. As a result, I developed certain characteristics. I was a very sensitive child and I had a hard time in school. I ended up getting a good sixth grade teacher who helped me get into a better reading group and to start thinking big, so to speak. I learned I didn’t have to be a failure in life. When I was going into 7th grade, I had a very significant dream and I can remember it like it was yesterday. It came to me that even though I had a low IQ, according to the basic skills test, if I was able to work hard, go out for athletics and get good grades; I could maybe have some kind of success. It also always came to me to be kind to other people and to be very thankful.

I’m from a small town in Iowa where wrestling and football was big. I was driven to get my father to love me and in my conscious and subconscious it came to me that if I could be an outstanding athlete, then maybe my dad would love me. I craved attention so badly that it was like a drug. Wrestling was my sport and I set the goal to become the first person in Iowa to win the state championship four years in a row. I became a fanatic to succeed. But during this time, I never had any kind of relationship with my father. As I look back now, I can understand why he was the way he was because the same thing happened to me 23 years later when I came back from Vietnam. I also had PTSD.

I achieved my goal to win the state four years in a row, but with a lot of obstacles. Colleges were recruiting me to wrestle. I got a letter from the coach at West Point, who also happened to be from Iowa. Up until then, I had never heard of West Point. I went to Fort Leavenworth to take the test. When I got there, I thought it was just the academic part, but I found out that I had to do the physical part too. The only problem was that I had separated my shoulder during the semifinals at the state tournament. I didn't find out it was separated until Sunday and had just barely won on Saturday. On Monday, I was now being faced with this challenge. I tried to do pushups and pull ups but couldn’t. It popped in my mind to do it all left-handed, which I had never done before, and I haven’t done it since. I passed.

I ended up going to West Point in June of 1966. It was very hard on me academically but did well in wrestling as the captain of the team and was an All-American. However, during those four years, the military atmosphere changed dramatically. President Kennedy was killed in November of 1963. He was a hero to most of us and he was going to get us out of Vietnam, but President Johnson expanded it. Some of the cadets that had graduated a year or two ahead of me, were now coming back from Vietnam to get buried at West Point.

After graduating, I went to Airborne and Ranger School. I ended up in Vietnam on December 15, 1967 in the Signal Corps. However, with the Tet Offensive in the spring of 1968, I got an order saying that I had to start taking my people on patrols. I was a Company Commander with the 4th Infantry Division at that time out of Pleiku. Many of the soldiers that we got from the Signal Corps didn’t have hardly any infantry training and had barely held a rifle in their hands until they got to Vietnam. I was called into a top-secret meeting and was ordered to take more than half of my people on patrol by daybreak. I was upset because I cared about my men. I stood up and said these men aren’t trained. The Colonel told me to sit down and shut up or he would relieve me on the spot. I was gonna tell him to relieve me, but I realized they would just replace me and take them on patrol anyway. I thought that since I had all this training at West Point, and I’ve gone through Ranger school, I better not do that. We stayed up all night teaching our men how to handle a weapon and to be quiet. The very next morning we took our men out on patrol and it was like a Boy Scout hike. They were talking and laughing. They didn't get it because they hadn’t been properly trained. Once we got fired upon, it was a lot different.

We were going on regular patrols at that time and the closest call I ever had was prior to the Tet Offensive. The Colonel called me and said he had a special assignment for me, and I was sent to an outpost in Kontum, which was a top-secret crypto position and was told very little about it. I got there at 1700. The tent was in the center the perimeter and I thought if we got overrun, they’d go for the officers first. My plan was to change it the next morning. At midnight that night we were overrun. There were about 25 of us in this secret place and most of them were communications people without hardly any fighting experience. We found out later that the VC took some drugs, said goodbye to their families and went on a suicide mission to try and destroy the place the best they could. They were all greased up and came through the wire.

I grabbed my M-16 and radio because I had to call in for support. I got out of the tent as fast as I could because I knew they’d be coming to kill the officers. Flares were going off and for about 30 seconds it was like daytime and then the flare would go down and it was pitch black again. When one of the flares went off, I saw a VC in front of me about 15 feet away. He was carrying an AK-47. He had it waist high and was bringing it up, he was going to shoot me. I was trying to get my M-16. As he was ready to pull the trigger, I was already flexing like when you’re about to hit a deer with your car, and just at that moment there was an American Soldier that had his M-16 and hit this VC right across the top of his head and took it right off.

I came home in August of 1970. I became a teacher and a wrestling coach for a while and then I went into business. In 1977, it was recommended that I buy a farm and be around plants and animals. We had 10 children and have lost two. They are buried on our land. I was very sharp with my children; I couldn’t help it. My wife will tell you that I completely changed after the war. Any combat Vet will tell you that you’re never the same after you go through war. I was jumpy, always checking when I went into a room, and if someone is walking behind me, I get nervous and check it out. I have nightmares and grind my teeth. But because I was so disciplined as an athlete and because of the information the VA has given me, I work very hard at keeping my thoughts positive. I write down at least 10 things a day that I’m thankful for, then draw a line and write down the things that are wrong in my life. I’ve realized that many things that appear to be wrong, in the long run work out for the good. I’ve found that to be true through experience. Through much research, trial and error and spiritual prayer, I’ve finally made peace with the creator of the universe and have a strong spiritual relationship now. If I didn’t have that now, even with the positive thinking, I wouldn’t have made it through.

In 2018, 50 years after I left Vietnam, four of my five sons took me back for two weeks. We ended up talking to three families that had either a father or a grandfather that had fought in the war against us. The family members said all of them had PTSD and have since died. They said they had nothing against the American soldiers. If we would have met on the street, we probably would have been friends. It was very comforting to me knowing that these soldiers didn’t hate us, just like I didn’t hate them.

There's a picture of my father holding me when he got back from Italy in 1945. Then I have a picture of me holding my son in December of 1968 when I was in Vietnam. It was a hard experience. He had medical problems and my wife almost died at childbirth. He had to have a life or death surgery and this all happened while I was in Vietnam. They did bring me home for that surgery. I was just getting off a helicopter to go on patrol when I got the message that I had to get home. 26 and a half hours later, I stepped off a plane in Minneapolis and it was a culture shock. The surgery was done. I then had to go back to Vietnam. I thought about going to Canada because I was worried about getting killed and leaving my son without a father. I realized I couldn’t do that though. One out of every 20 West Point classmates were killed and one out of every six were wounded or maimed. Many of us that survived Vietnam have PTSD. Even though I grew up living under my father who had PTSD, no one told me that was the reason he was that way. If I had known that, I might not have gone to West Point.

I’ve been blessed with a great wife and we’ll be married for 55 years this June. She has lived through what I went through, and she could have left me because I wasn’t the same person. I have it under control most of the time, but I can still get upset sometimes. From the mercy of God, all of my children have become successful. Four live in Minnesota, three in Georgia and one lives locally. They have all been of great support to my wife and me.

I didn’t come to the VA right away because I didn’t want anything to do with the government. I’ve been coming now for about 20 years, but more so in the last 10 years. I’ve been told that I’m one of the healthiest 77-year old’s they’ve ever seen. Being able to talk to the VA has helped me a lot.

I have a website www.bobsteenlage.com and my Facebook page is dedicated to inspiration. I used to give talks at schools, corporations, prisons, and military bases. I’m driven to try to make other people happy and doing something positive for others is another reason not to give up. One of the things that keeps me going is that if I inspire someone; it’s like a shot of adrenaline for me.

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