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Roeker recalls his time on the Vietnam frontline

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final profile of area individuals who served in the Vietnam War. The Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., will be at the Gas-Lite Park in the Town of Trimbelle this Thursday through next Monday.)

David Roeker had been a year out of high school when he got the fateful news: He was heading to Vietnam.

The North Dakota native received word he was drafted in September 1968. He obviously wasn't in favor of the move, but he went along anyway.

"Our parents' generation were World War II veterans and to serve our country was the honorable thing to do," the now 58-year-old said.

Roeker was assigned to the Army branch of the 101st Airborne Division. By the following August, he was on his way to Vietnam.

His flight out to Vietnam didn't go smoothly, as the plane initially flew out of California with stops along the way in Hawaii, Philippines and Guam before reaching Vietnam.

"Each stop, the plane had to fuel and we had to get out," he recalled. "And I remember with each stop closer to Vietnam, it got harder to breathe.

"It took me two weeks in Vietnam to get used to the air because it was steamy and tropical."

Then, once his plane landed, Roeker and his platoon had to be evacuated because they're under rocket attack.

His role within the 101st Airborne was of Artillery Field Section Chief, as he would go with the infantry and adjust the artillery fire.

Furthermore, that was part of a reconnaissance team which had a simple mission.

"We're part of a small team that checked out an area to see what was behind that hill or valley," he said. "You did that by hiding because that was your only way of staying alive."

Some fellow recon workers were unable to stay alive, as Roeker recalls he changed units frequently.

"I was never in the same place for six months," he said. "It was the luck of the draw."

Sometimes, an entire recon team could get completely wiped out.

"You didn't get close to people because you knew you're going to split up one way or another."

That made for some troublesome times, especially when trying to find out what was going on back home. He remembered saying he got a letter saying his mother's father died, then to receive a letter two weeks later, saying he was fine (that letter was obviously sent first).

"You learn to read your mail in chronological order," he said.

The conditions in Vietnam were far from ideal. While the heat and humidity got to him early, he had his fair share of wet and cold nights.

"We spent many nights in the mountains," he explained. "I grew up in North Dakota, but the coldest nights I've ever spent in my life were those nights in Vietnam."

He also carried a backpack everywhere he went containing enough food, water and ammunition for six days. It was a challenge because he weighed less than 130 pounds back then and the backpack was about 85 pounds.

Due to being part of those erratic conditions, Roeker had a simple wish.

"My greatest desire is for politicians to live like we did for a week," he said. "Sleep where we sleep, drink the water we drink. If they did, the war would've been over in a week."

Roeker never completed his tour of duty, as less than 90 days before he was scheduled to go home, he was helping to load a 105 howitzer during the middle of the night, his left hand got stuck between the howitzer and the canister, resulting in cut tendons in the hand. Traditionally, a crew of 13 is needed to load the howitzer. At that moment, Roeker was working with a crew of five.

That resulted in him spending four months in hospitals, as medical personnel were concerned about an infection spreading to the arm. (He has no feeling in his left pinky, but the rest of the hand is fine.) Included in that stay was a month in a Japanese hospital, where he marked his 21st birthday.

"It was the first time in a year, I knew I had a reasonable chance of survival," he said. "Turning 21 was a big deal because it was the first time we could vote, which made you feel like a real adult."

After arrival back stateside, Roeker accepted a job in St. Paul as a Mechanical Engineer for 3M in 1974, where he stayed until retiring in 2002. Presently, he lives out on a farm between Hudson and River Falls with his wife Darla. He is the parent of two children and the step-father of another two.

Jason Schulte

Jason Schulte is a reporter for the New Richmond News since February 2015. Prior to that he spent eight years at the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth. His duties with the News will include covering news out of Hammond and Roberts along with action from St. Croix County court system. He lives in Roberts. 

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