Vickroy: Treasuring letters to Mom from soldier in Vietnam
BY DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy January 23, 2014 8:54PM
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American Legion Post 691 will present the letters at 2 p.m. at the post, 14817 S. Pulaski Road, Midlothian; (708) 385-9526.
The legion also will celebrate the 90th birthday of Marine Cpl. Robert Kickert, who served in the Battle of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal during World War II.
Updated: February 25, 2014 6:26AM
May 18, 1967. Khe Sanh, a city in Vietnam. Written on cardboard torn from a case of C-rations: “Dear Mom, Happy Mother’s Day. I’m sorry about this card but it’s all I’ve got. I’m on Hill 861 and I’m feeling fine. Will write when possible. Say ‘Hi’ to everyone. Love, Bob”
Back when communication was more private than social, the handwritten letter was a lifeline, especially to families separated by war. Today, many of those inked treasures, penned in longhand and mailed across continents, are windows into the past, documenting world events through a single lens.
On Saturday, members of the Midlothian American Legion will present Ruth Bernhardt-Kuehl with a packet of letters from the 1960s that she only recently learned existed. The 30 handwritten letters — some short notes fired off on crude cardboard, some eloquently detailed explanations about life on the front lines — were written by her late husband to his mother while he served in the Vietnam War.
Marine Lt. Col. Robert Kuehl Jr. worked air control and reconnaissance with the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment during the war. He was “in country” from March 1966 through September 1967 and participated in the Hill Fights in Khe Sanh in May 1967. The letters describe geography, battle and, of course, the tremendous loss. But they also include inquiries into troubling family dynamics.
Aug. 15, 1966, Da Nang: “You ask why I want to go back into the field. It’s not for any type of glory; It’s a feeling like you just have to go back. I just found out that another one of my friend (sic) from Chicago was killed and another wounded. I guess I’m awful lucky, I haven’t even gotten so much as a scratch yet.”
Bernhardt-Kuehl, who lives in LaGrange, said, “I can’t wait to read them and pass that information on to other family members. I didn’t know him at the time so this is very meaningful to me.”
During their 21 years together, Bernhardt-Kuehl said, her husband — who later became a Chicago firefighter — told her bits and pieces about his experience in the war. The letters, she said, will help flesh out the story.
“He has many nieces and nephews who are (young adults) now,” she said. “They want to know what it was like in Vietnam.”
In December 2012, Kuehl’s mom, Pat Fagette, passed away. Though she’d been estranged from much of the family for most of her adult life, having left when her son was just 7, she thought enough of his letters to keep them for more than 40 years.
Fagette left everything in her Bourbonnais home to her neighbors, Jon and Pam Halperin, who over the years had looked after her, shoveling snow, driving her to the store and running errands.
Unsure what to do with the letters, Jon Halperin approached his co-worker, Dave Twombly, a Navy veteran and member of the Midlothian American Legion.
At first, Twombly, who helps other veterans get the medals they earned in combat, thought he’d send Kuehl’s letters on to a Marine Corps library. But then he learned that Kuehl had a wife living in the Chicago area.
He reached out to Bernhardt-Kuehl and an event was organized. Members of the Chicago Fire Department as well as veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan missions, including wounded warrior Brett Mango, will attend the presentation at 2 p.m. at the American Legion, 14817 S. Pulaski Road, Midlothian.
“I don’t want these guys to be forgotten,” said Twombly, who has read all of the letters. “It’s not fair or right to simply drop these letters in the garbage. It’s his whole military life right here.”
Robert Kuehl was born in Chicago in 1947. He attended Little Flower Catholic schools, graduating from the high school.
His father, Robert Kuehl Sr., was a Marine in World War II. The younger Bob joined the Marines in 1965 and began writing to his mother, who lived in California at the time, as soon as he arrived at boot camp.
Over the next two years, Kuehl wrote about packages he received, job promotions and Vietnam’s extreme weather, which could range from searing in the jungle during the day to cool at night in the mountains.
Bernhardt-Kuehl said her husband always was interested in learning about cultures.
“I’m sure he saw the entire thing as an educational experience,” she said.
May 17, 1967, Hill 861: “From my position I command an excellent view for many miles. To the west I can see Laos, to my north is the DMZ and North Vietnam, to the east is the South China Sea and to the south is a magnificent mountain range. ... My job now is being a member of a 5 man F.A.C. (Forward Air Control) We sit on top of these mountain peaks or go strolling down to the valley floor looking for targets to blow-up ... ”
But Kuehl also wrote very personal thoughts about his childhood, asking his mom why certain painful events had to happen and expressing concern for the well-being of his sister, Linda, who was a teenager at the time.
In many letters, he segues from concerns about the home front to news on the front lines.
Dec. 20, 1966: “We were supposed to move off this hill about the 15th of January to go north and (sic) the D.M.Z. But a North Vietnamese division moved in close by and were (sic) having all we can do to hold this area.”
In February 1967, Kuehl’s letter informed his mom that he’d received his diploma from Little Flower and that he planned to apply to college when he got home, sometime in September.
Bernhardt-Kuehl said after he returned, he ended up being hospitalized for a time due to serious post-traumatic stress.
“He’d seen everything — hand-to-hand combat — the real stuff,” she said. “But he came out (of the hospital) OK.”
He was hired by the Chicago Fire Department in 1973 and met Bernhardt-Kuehl, his second wife, in 1982.
Kuehl rose to the rank of lieutenant with the fire department. He died from a heart condition in 2003 at age 55, leaving behind Bernhardt-Kuehl, his sister, two sons, Steven and Robert, as well as his parents.
Bernhardt-Kuehl said her husband loved to write, tell stories, fish, garden and golf.
She’s thinking about shopping around a novel he wrote awhile back but never had published.
“He said it was fiction,” she said, “but I have a feeling there’s a lot of truth to it.”