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Distinguished Vietnam veteran learns to open up

By: Jennie Miller | Southfield Sun | Published October 5, 2011

 Sgt. Tom Strempka takes time to reflect after a firefight in the bush of Vietnam, circa October 1971.

Sgt. Tom Strempka takes time to reflect after a firefight in the bush of Vietnam, circa October 1971.

Photo courtesy of Tom Strempka


BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — Tom Strempka, 63, of Bloomfield Township looks down at his vest, covered with military insignia, and quietly, painfully, tries to explain what it all means.

His sergeant stripes, a sniper pin, the 1st Cavalry insignia, a Presidential Unit Citation for valor, the Vietnam Gallantry Cross, and one that reads “point man.” He pauses at the Combat Infantryman Badge.

“You see that on somebody — they’ve seen it,” Strempka said, taking a deep breath. “They’ve seen it all.”

His eyes move toward his Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He breaks down a little, fighting the painful memories as he tries to put into words why he earned them.

Forty years later, the tears still come. He’s haunted by the memories, tortured by what he saw, what he did and maybe what he didn’t do. One hundred and twenty four days of his 63 years have defined his entire life.

Up until five years ago, Strempka never spoke of it. In nearly four decades, he never communicated with his comrades from the bush. He silently endured his pain, always wondering what had happened to them, scared to find out. Survivor’s guilt, he calls it. Severe delayed post-traumatic stress disorder, the professionals have now decided.

“I grew up in the ‘50s,” Strempka said. “Men weren’t supposed to have feelings.”

The leader of his squadron, Strempka was injured in combat after his platoon walked into an ambush of booby traps in the jungle. Struck in the legs and back by shrapnel from claymore mines, Strempka and eight others were extracted from the bush with serious injuries and medivacked to safety. One soldier was killed. More than the pain of his injuries, Strempka was tormented by the fact that he left his men behind. He was tormented by the “what-ifs” — things they could have maybe done differently that day to escape the trap.

But five years ago, Strempka received a call out of the blue that changed his life. It was from a fellow squad leader in his platoon who was on the same mission that day, Oct. 29, 1971. He too was injured in the ambush. He too had kept his pain inside all these years, and was in a bad way.

“I talked to him that night for three to four hours,” Strempka said. “We did a lot of crying. He was reaching out for help, and he’d already talked to some of the other fellas. He’d contacted all the guys who’d been hit to find out how they had fared. Come to find out that we shared so much of the same things through our whole life.”

It was that conversation that led Strempka to reach out further. To learn that he wasn’t alone in his pain, that he wasn’t the only one who was edgy, aggressive, isolated, uncomfortable in crowds and unable to sleep at night was eye-opening for him.

“You reach out and you find your brother, and it’s ‘holy crap, I’m not alone,’” Strempka said. “How I’ve been all my life? Everybody had the same symptoms.”

He joined the Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion, began going to the VA Medical Center and now receives regular therapy for severe delayed post-traumatic stress disorder. Last year, he traveled to Minnesota for a reunion of the 1st Cavalry Division Association. Some 400 veterans were there, including eight from Strempka’s platoon. He was overcome with emotion as he recalled seeing his “brothers” for the first time in nearly 40 years.

“I looked around the room — 300 to 400 people, and then I (saw) them,” he said. “I knew it was them. Thirty-nine years later, and I knew it was them right away. We all started crying. The whole three days was emotional, but it was good for the soul. It cleared up a lot of things. We started talking and learning that everyone had the same problems — whether they were wounded or not — the same emotional scars and detachment. A lot of us were workaholics, alcoholics, and at one point in (our lives), everyone decided to seek help. In talking about it, we learned we were all the same. As hard as you try to ignore it, it was with you every day, so you had no choice. It was always with you.”

There was still one man Strempka wanted to get in touch with. A man who was in his platoon, who sat with him and bandaged him after he was hit by the claymore mines. For a year he searched for him, and one day, a Google search turned up the man’s obituary — he’d been living in Michigan, had recently died, and was buried at the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly.

“He died of Parkinson’s disease, from the Agent Orange,” Strempka said, bowing his head, wishing he’d had the chance to speak with him and to thank him for sitting with him during the worst moment of his life.

“I feel like I missed an opportunity,” he said.

Sharing these stories is hard for Strempka. It’s still so new for him to talk about it. But he’s grateful for the chance. He says it helps.

He’s recently given lectures in graduate psychology classes at the University of Michigan, where he shares his story to help the students learn how to treat other veterans coming back from war.

“I tell them what it was like to be in combat, the mental aspects of it,” he said. “The stress, the lack of sleep, your senses, how acute your hearing is, sensitivity to touch, detachment. How it affects you that your mission is to go out and kill someone. You always remember the first man that you kill. You also remember the first buddy that you bagged or tried to help to a helicopter. Everything else is just a blur. My whole thing in talking with my therapist and that is if I can help somebody to understand what it’s like for someone coming back who’s been in combat theater, why they live the way they live — it’s not by choice, it’s just the way things are. Other vets say, ‘I’m fine, nothing will help me,’ and that’s bull. That was me, (telling people) ‘you wouldn’t understand, you’ve never been in combat.’ But if I don’t find a vehicle of explaining it to people, (others) are just going to be going down the same path.”

He looks again at the Bronze Star on his vest.

“It was for a moment of stupidity,” Strempka said, shaking his head, fighting back tears. “A couple of my men and I, we got tired during a firefight. It was getting on our nerves and we just decided to end the fire from these two bunkers. So we basically set a plan and we took the bunkers out and for that they gave us the Bronze Star. You think about it afterward and say, ‘Oh God, were we stupid.’ To just boldly get up and just decide enough is enough and to stand up and charge these bunkers. Your other men down the line are wondering, ‘What the hell are they doing?’ and they just see us running in there. You reach a point in combat where you just don’t (care). You just don’t. You accept death for what it is and you move on. Sometimes people recognize it as heroic. They say, ‘Oh, you’re a hero.’ ‘This guy’s got a lot of badges, he’s a hero.’ But those are things you do in combat that you’re expected to do. Being in infantry and that, it was our job. ‘Oh you’re a hero.’ No I’m not, I just did my job.”

Strempka shifts toward his POW/MIA insignia and his posture changes a little. It’s clear there’s a deeper meaning behind it. He said he has one on every jacket.

“You’ll find all Vietnam vets always wear this because in Vietnam, there are 1,018 men still missing,” Strempka said. “So we wear it in tribute to them. Until they’re all home, the war is still on for us. Until they’re back, we’re still at war, we’re still there.”

The 40th anniversary is approaching of the day his unit was ambushed on Oct. 29. Strempka has never worked on that day. Every year, for 40 years, he’s always taken that day off.

“I just want to be alone, and find some peace,” he said.

This year, however, he plans to go to the Great Lakes National Cemetery in Holly, and sit with the man who 40 years ago, sat with him.