Connections That Count
Toledo Vietnam veterans reach out to help fellow soldiers
By Jeff McGinnis
A native of East Toledo, Bob Stewart served for six months in Southeast Asia before being shot by the enemy in the Cambodian jungle, resulting in a number of injuries, including wounds to his chest, back, arm and thigh. After being discharged from the service, Stewart returned to the Glass City, working for 40 years as an engineer for the railroad. Since returning home, Stewart, now 68, has been on a crusade— to speak out and advocate for the voiceless among the veteran community. In celebration of Veterans Day, MLiving takes a look at Bob Stewart’s work for the veterans of our community.
A Toledo resident, Stewart recalls visiting a soldier in a VA hospital. He’d been asked to talk to the young man, a veteran of the Iraq war. The veteran, Stewart was told, had been contemplating suicide.
The 68-year-old Stewart sat down next to him and introduced himself. Vietnam veteran. Recipient of a Bronze Star. Inductee into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame. President of the Toledo chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. As he looked at the young soldier, he said, “I just realized something— how important you are.”
“I told him, ‘You may think that nobody loves you, and that your world’s fallen apart. I’ve been in those shoes. I’ve never been in that sand, but I’ve been in those shoes. I realize how important it is, and how important you are,’” Stewart explained.
“God put me through all that I went through— and you can look it up — because he wanted me here tonight, for you. We do not leave our own. And I will not leave you. If I can’t be there, someone will be in my stead. I will hold you, help you. And I got your six (back).’”
Being there for fellow soldiers is a solemn vow for Stewart and all members of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Toledo Chapter 35. The group offers financial and medical assistance, emotional support and so much more to area veterans— and not just veterans of the Vietnam war. In fact, most of the support offered by the VVA’s Toledo Chapter is provided to veterans who aren’t even members.
“We’ve given assistance to Korean War vets and World War II vets, and [other veterans), that needed help,” said Gene Shurtz, chaplain and treasurer of VVA 35. “In fact, we have a more-or-less indirect rule within the chapter that we won’t financially fund our own problems. We go out and find other means of assistance for that, so we can’t be accused of favoring one person over another.”
The national VVA first formed in the late 1970s, built around the founding principle that “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.” For Stewart, though, that vow runs even deeper. Stewart’s commitment to assist other veterans is tied into a promise he made while fighting to survive, hoping he would somehow find his way home to help others.
“I made a promise when I was in Cambodia that, ‘God, if you will just help me survive this, then I will fight for those that cannot fight, I will run for those that cannot walk, and I will scream for those that cannot talk, ‘til my last dying breath, if you will just let me get out of this alive.’ Well, I’m here. And I always pay my debts.”
Making a liar
Stewart’s journey to joining the VVA began in 1969, when his brother received a draft notice. Having lost a sister a few years prior to that to cancer, Stewart was adamant that he wouldn’t let his brother “get dead” in the war. So, he went down to the recruitment office and asked how he could get him out of it. Enlist yourself, he was told. Become an infantryman.
“He said, ‘When you go to training, you have to excel.’ Well, I went to Fort Polk, Louisiana, infantry school, called North Fort— Little Vietnam. I became the outstanding trainee. And it was pretty cool. I still have the award sitting on my shelf here in front of me,” Stewart said, gesturing toward the accolade. “And (the training instructor) said, ‘I gotta tell you something, son.
Everybody that ever won this trophy has never come home from Vietnam.’ And I said, ‘Sir, no disrespect [to] your rank, your color, your creed, your persuasion, but I’m gonna make a (expletive) liar out of you.’ And I’m the only guy of my outfit that came home.”
VVA Chapter 35 does not accept clothing, furniture or other material goods— they sustain their work via fundraising and monetary donations.
“We’re very, very sensitive to make sure that it’s used for not only local outreach, but also to support veteran assistance within the community— like the Toledo Rescue Gospel Mission and the Cherry Street Mission— they’re two of the ones we donate to locally every Christmas and Thanksgiving, because they are serving veterans who are on the street,” Shurtz said.
Whether by offering financial assistance or being there to talk one on one to a brother in arms, Bob Stewart will never forget his vow. “Every time I get a phone call (from one of the veterans that I have helped), and they say, ‘Mr. Stewart, you did just like you said. I got help— I look up to God and I say, ‘Well, was it worth it keeping me alive?’”
The Toledo VVA meets every month at the Lake Township Hall at 27975 Cummings Rd (near Rte 795), Millbury, OH 43447. For more information, or to make a donation, please visit toledovietnamvets.com, or call 419.242.4293
Oral History Project Art Exhibit
A special exhibit, featuring military life, opens Sunday, November 11 at the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums in Fremont.
The exhibit, Experiencing Veterans and Artists Collaborations (EVAC), is part of a national project that pairs artists with veterans to create an original piece of art based on their experiences. The goal is to bridge the gap between civilians and veterans by educating the public about military life. EVAC partnered with the museum’s Northwest Ohio Veterans Oral History Project.
Through the oral history project, Associate Curator of Manuscripts Julie Mayle meets with local veterans and records their stories, scans their photos and important documents and preserves them in the local history collections at the Hayes Presidential Library & Museums. The veterans also receive a digital copies of their interviews and records.
The artwork in the EVAC exhibit features 12 to 15 pieces created using stories of veterans Veterans also receive a copy of the art created based on their experiences. Some of the pieces in this exhibit will eventually be displayed at other locations throughout the country.
For information, call 419-332-2081, or visit rbhayes.org.
Exhibit runs through January 31. Speigel Grove, Fremont.
Stories of Northwest Ohio Veterans Live On
Read and listen to these emotional accounts
By Linda Koss
Civilians’ view of war comes from images recorded by journalists, novelists and movie makers, but veterans have their own stories to tell. The writings of veterans were compiled in a local book In Our Boots: A Collection of Veterans’ Stories, which is now available at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL).
In Northwest Ohio, two projects, one complete and the other ongoing, have recorded the stories of veterans for posterity. Available for reading or listening, veterans can still contribute to those records.
Several years ago, Amy Hartman, a librarian at the Sylvania Branch of the TLCPL and Holly Baumgartner, a professor of English at Lourdes College (now Lourdes University), created a six-week curriculum of writing sessions to encourage veterans to write about their experiences. The sessions focused on humor, memorable people and war experiences.
Members of the classes brought samples of “homework” that they had been assigned the previous week to be critiqued by the whole class. As well, the group read works by veterans who were professional writers.
In all, about 35 veterans participated, including veterans of WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, and the Iraq War. One of the participants was a U Boat sailor from Germany. “He was hesitant to come,” said Hartman, thinking he would be judged by the others, but he was accepted. “He didn’t write much. He just wanted to hang around and tell stories with the other guys. Everyone really respected each other and valued their experiences.”
Veterans History Project
The Ward Canaday Center at the University of Toledo houses recorded oral histories of Northwest Ohio veterans with a collection called the Veterans History Project. Begun locally in 2005 as part of a nationwide project, the collection now has more than 600 interviews. A brief sample can be downloaded here: www.utoledo.edu/library/canaday/tapes.html
According to Tamara Jones of the Canaday Center at University of Toledo’s Carlson Library, the interviews are mostly recorded, with a few that are transcribed. The collection is open to the public Monday through Friday from 8 am to 5 pm, closed noon to 1 pm each day.
If you are interested in participating in the Veterans History Project, please contact Andrew “Bud” Fisher at 419-882-1945.
NW Ohio Veteran Book Excerpts
In Our Boots: A Collection of Veterans’ Stories
(compiled by the Toledo Lucas County Public Library and Lourdes University)
In honor of Veterans Day, we present these excerpts of writings from Northwest Ohio veterans concerning their
There are many other things I learned that have enhanced and have become integral parts of my life. I quickly learned “Don’t forget nothing”
—the very first rule of Roger’s Rules for the Ranging Service, circa 1957. Leaving something behind is just as important to avoid when you are going to a business meeting as it is when going on patrol.
I learned the necessity of thorough preparation and planning and sometimes even rehearsal before a raid, an ambush or any mission with an objective to achieve. I learned the value of checking and double checking weapons, ammo, equipment, route, safety and timing.
I learned to face and overcome fear when crossing rivers at night in the Florida swamps on a dark moonless night, overcoming the panic of losing and trying to find the spots taped on the back of the hats worn by rangers on night operations so people behind them can follow them.
I learned to overcome fear when performing the “confidence” test of walking across 50 feet of 2”x 5” boards nailed to a horizontal telephone pole with a set of three steps midway, suspended 40 feet in the air over a pond.
I learned the need to overcome panic when in water survival testing, they pushed you, complete with pack and weapons into the deep end of the swimming pool and you immediately sank to the bottom and stayed there.
…I learned humor during survival training when the instructor was handing out live chickens to be killed and eaten by Ranger teams. When asked where he was from by the lead instructor, my buddy replied, “Durango, Colorado.” When the instructor asked me, I answered, “Albany, New York.” He looked me in the eye and said “YOU kill the chicken!”
I learned tenacity crawling through the mountain laurel of the Chattahoochee National Forest at night with a full pack and weapon.
I learned about hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation. On a night patrol, one Ranger student saw a subway in the middle of the Florida swamp. After his vivid description, I, along with two or three others, were ready to get on board the train.
I learned that size isn’t everything when a large sized varsity football star from the prestigious Virginia Military Institute dropped out of the course because the blisters on his hands kept opening up and bleeding from his efforts to pull his substantial weight up the rope climbs.
–Ed Popkoski, formerly of Sylvania Township. Captain,
Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 94th Artillery
4th Armoured Division Schwaebisch Gmuend,
West Germany Ranger School, 1962
Mr. Popkoski worked in sales and marketing and
started Powertech Systems. He currently resides in Florida.
We’d gaze up at white flares popping up brilliantly in the jet black sky, slowly drifting to earth, hanging from their parachutes…
Sometimes one would land close enough so that one of the guys who ran fast could claim the chute as a prize. The parachutes were maybe six feet round and perfect for upholstering a hooch ceiling. The Cobras sometimes would pop red and green flares and shoot their rockets and fire their Gatling guns. The red tracers would erupt from those guns so fast and furious that it appeared as if there was one steady stream of fiery red lead pelting down on their target. They’d make the sound of a buzz saw. Off into the night time horizon you could hear the rumble of a B-52 strike and vaguely see what looked like a widely stretched lightning storm hugging the ground, flickering, miles away.
-Clark W. Michael, former Maumee resident who now lives in California, Specialist 4, Combat Engineer Battalion, served in Vietnam.
After his discharge from the Army, Mr. Michael worked as
a commercial radio broadcaster, retiring in 2008.