Connecting Vets

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Veterans Community Showcase: The many sides of George Stoecker

November 03, 2017 - 7:00 am
(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

We asked you to tell us about a veteran who continues to serve and inspire. From hundreds of compelling entries, we chose to tell the stories of eight veterans. The first-ever Veterans Community Showcase is presented in partnership with United Rentals.

by Jonathan Kaupanger

The first thing you notice about George Stoecker is that he’s from the Northeast; he has that distinctive, sharp accent to his voice. The fact that he’s a truly kind person comes out almost as quick too. And really, he’s the definition of an American veteran.

“I took an oath in ’66 to defend my country and the people in it, and nobody has relieved me of that oath. It’s still active today," he said.

George is a veteran who served in the Vietnam War. “You give back. Our country gives us so much freedom,” is why he joined. Although just saying that he "joined" is simplifying things. George originally joined the Navy in 1966 and was honorably discharged five months and 28 days later. His bad knees were what got him the discharge, but they didn’t stop him from being drafted in ’67.

He wanted to serve, that wasn’t the problem.

“I joined the Navy to be a career person,” he said. “I had 20 years picked out.” The problem was his paperwork. Because he already had a discharge, he was told he couldn’t be drafted. 1968 hit, another draft notice came, but he was told no yet again.

At this point, George decided to get his life going anyway. He got a good job and bought a car. Then, 1969 came, and instead of the expected draft notice and denial, he was inducted into the Army.

courtesy George Stoecker

“All the guys I joined the Navy with had already been to Vietnam, and I was just starting my two year tour in the Army,” he said, the trace of irony noticeable in his voice.

“God blessed me with a wife of 44 years, two daughters and four grandkids, I’ve had a good life,” he said from his home in Arizona. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 33 years after Vietnam and is doing what he can to stay happy.

“For me it’s always been about family, God and country. Still is.”

He has a 100% disability rating, uses the VA for his medical services and said that he found them to be very good. He volunteered good news: “I haven’t had a pain pill – it will be a year in January.” This time, you can almost hear some relief in the sound of his voice. Also, at the suggestion of a VA doctor, he is in training now with a therapy dog,

“Training the dog is easier than training the human,” he laughed.

The dog is to help George now that his “psych meds” have been taken away—he lost his 13-year-old lab last year. What he did after his dog passed starts to show just what type of a man George is. He went out and gave to homeless; if they had a pet, he gave them both a bag for people and a special bag he made just for the pet.

The source of pretty much all of his health issues today comes from Agent Orange exposure back in the late 60’s.

“Who knows what it did,” he said. He has a long list of ailments, including major thyroid issues, which he passed along to his daughters. “Previously to my tour in Vietnam, no one in my family had any thyroid problems.”

He spent a year in Vietnam as a combat engineer. “We would blow up tunnels,” he said, then laughed at a memory. “We didn’t go after the tunnel rats; I never had to go in.”

The tunnels, used by the Viet Cong, were about two to three feet high; George at the time was six foot, 235lbs. “One lieutenant – he was trying to make rank or something, well he told me to go in and disarm booby traps. I didn’t do it. I threw a couple high-explosive grenades in and told him he had about seven seconds to clear the area.”

When asked if there were any good times, he comes back with a brilliant classic of a memory, Bob Hope; Christmas 1969. “Bob Hope visited “Rocket City” with his Christmas Show. He brought with him the singer, Connie Stevens,” he recalls. She was singing the ‘Won’t you marry me, Bill?’ (Wedding Bell Blues) and invites all the guys up with the name Bill on stage.”

“She goes up to one guy and asks his name,” Still laughing after half a century, George continues with perfect timing, “His name was Lou something… he says ‘I couldn’t resist!’”

After his tour was up in Vietnam, George was assigned to Fort Knox. The Army wanted him to become a drill sergeant and teach, but, he just didn’t want to be involved in teaching other people about war. The military offered a signing bonus if he’d go into nuke demolition.

“I told him, I’m not a smart guy, I didn’t know algebra or anything that you thought you had to have,” recalled George. “They said all you have to have is good hands. That was worth 20k to the military, but I just backed away. I had seen enough death and destruction. I didn’t want to be a part of that; I just walked away from it.”

When George’s life as a veteran started, he didn’t know whether to be proud of ashamed of his time in the service. Society at the time didn’t help with the collective bad view of the war. George says he never talked about his time in Vietnam or in the service. The way he dealt with it again shows a softer, more human side to the onetime combat engineer. He would write poetry and sing lullabies that he would make up about Vietnam to his daughters.

It took him 40 to 50 years before he got help with the emotional side of his war memories. As advice to anyone dealing with war now, he says to get help from the VA: “Get the benefits you fought for and use them! There are some great organizations out there!”

For George, that help came through the VA’s Vet Centers. “I can’t say enough about the Vet Centers, they have done miracles with these vets!”

Another big help for George is the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in Washington, DC as well as the Moving Wall. He’s been to DC and goes to see the traveling wall whenever it’s in the area; he says he can’t stay away. “It becomes a holy place whenever they bring it. It’s sacred. I feel close to that other life, it’s a reconnection that reinstills everything I truly believe.”

“This is a great nation, I’m blessed,” states George. “I figure, I’m not a millionaire, but I have a good home. If I go tomorrow, well I’ve been on borrowed time for 60 years the way I look at it. I’ve had a good life.”

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