By Jean Doran Matua, Editor
Bob Kunkel of Kimball retired in 1999 from a busy career as a Stearns County Sheriff’s Deputy. That’s when he noticed it most. Thoughts and remembrances from his year in the infantry in Vietnam flooded his mind. But this began as soon as he returned home from Vietnam.
At first, it was the sound of military-style helicopters, with their wop-wop-wop sound. In Vietnam, they were heard constantly.
Most nights they pulled guard duty, sleeping for a few hours and taking watch the rest of the night. At night it was quiet, Kunkel explains, except for strange noises. They learned to be vigilant to the extra-strange sounds, and any foreign noise was something to be alarmed about.
After coming home, things he saw or heard or words people would say could trigger unwanted thoughts. After he retired, Kunkel was overwhelmed with them. “In your mind, you’re right there again in Vietnam,” he says.
“It was more like an invasion into your mind,” Kunkel says. And it’s not always war issues that are brought to the surface in an instant. “Anything uncomfortable in your life can be brought back.
“I used to take [PTSD] pretty lightly,” Kunkel admits. “I didn’t know what it was until I had it.”
At his unit’s first reunion, he and his closest remaining buddy got to talking privately. He confessed then that he thought PTSD was fabricated. “Don’t say that. It’s real,” his buddy who had been through many of the same experiences as Kunkel told him. This friend got so bad he walked away from his job, and just lay in bed; it had taken him about eight months to get through the heaviest of it.
So when Kunkel felt overwhelmed himself, he sought help through the VA in St. Cloud and he started seeing psychiatrists and therapists trained in Vietnam-era PTSD. It started with making notes of things to talk to the first psychiatrist about. He began elaborating on some of the notes and had to force himself to get back to just making notes. One incident brought up another and the list grew until he had pages full of it. In his first year of therapy, Kunkel says, he had a lot to list. That list became the outline of what, on and off for 18 years, became a memoir to leave for his children and grandchildren. That memoir is now a published book, released just last week.
Today, Kunkel strongly encourages anyone in a similar situation to seek help. Go to the VA. Tell them what you’re feeling and they will get you into a program that can benefit you.
The story Kunkel tells is not at all like you see in the movies where it’s one exciting battle scene after another. In reality, there was an awful lot of boredom in the waiting time between those exciting moments.
Unlike the replacement troops that came in later in the war, and were dispersed to various units, Kunkel trained and served with the same unit. That made it harder, he says, when you make a good friend and that friend gets killed. The natural response is to stop trying to make friends with the new guys.
Kunkel is critical of some in the upper echelons in the Army. As a soldier, you didn’t know what their goal was but you had to move forward with it. Some were glory-
happy, others just poor leaders who made mistakes. One lieutenant in particular, Kunkel believes based on what he ordered Kunkel to do, wanted to get him shot. There are things he intentionally leaves out of his book, too so as not to hurt the feelings of others. Overall, he feels, he served with good, dedicated people.
Kunkel met Tri-County News editor and publisher Jean Matua when she did a story about new information revealed about the Kimball Post Office bombing in 1976 that identified Kunkel as possibly the intended victim of that crime. When he mentioned he was working on a memoir of his year in Vietnam, Matua offered to edit it, sensing already that it was an important project that needed to be shared. Little did she know then that it would consume about a year and a half of her life editing and preparing the manuscript for publishing. She started a new company to publish it herself, Thunderbrook Publishing.
Now that the book is published, both their roles are shifting to publicizing and marketing the finished book. Watch for book-signings in the area in the coming months.
Those who have read Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir report that it’s hard to put down. Indeed, there’s an unexpected twist around every corner. Other than the fact that he survived being wounded, you wouldn’t guess some of what Kunkel experiences in Vietnam.
Kunkel recalls these events with great detail, but also with a sense of humor. It’s easy to be pulled into the story right away. It’s not at all a chronology or biography, but rather how he remembers these events.
One of the differences between war movies and real life is that movies are filmed on a controlled set, everything goes as scripted and planned. Real life in Vietnam meant that a sense of order diminishes as soon as the action starts. He credits his intense training for keeping him and others in his unit alive; he feels they were better prepared than most.
“I feel like I completed a chapter in my life that started when I retired,” Kunkel says of having his book published now. “It occupied much of my life.”
Kunkel spent about 18 years on his memoir, mostly during the winter months.
Now that this big project is done, perhaps he’ll have more time to enjoy some of his favorite things: playing cribbage with his two brothers, hunting and fishing, and enjoying quiet time at their cabin up North.
Kunkel met Eileen Wagner just months before he was drafted, in 1966. She knew of him; the Kimball area is a small community, really. They mostly got to know each other through writing after he left for the Army.
When she learned he had been wounded, she made a phone call to his hospital in Japan. Back then, remember, making such a phone call was a major ordeal.
She was among those who met Kunkel at the airport when he returned. He was a different man after his experiences in Vietnam. It was maybe that guy, she says, she got to know after he came home. They dated for about a year before marrying and raising a family.
Bob has a strong, type A personality, Eileen says. She believes that’s part of how he got through his PTSD; he’s able to control some of it.
One lingering effect of his two months in the hospital in Japan at Christmas time: he can’t stand the materialism of Christmas, and won’t put up lights or do shopping; that’s all left up to Eileen. And there’s one Christmas song in particular that he really can’t stand to hear. You’ll just have to read the book to see which song that is.
Eileen is very happy that he completed the memoir and now the book, saying it was therapy for him. She just wonders why it took him so long.
Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir is available for purchase at Amazon.com. Versions for Kindle and Nook will soon be available as well. There are a few copies for sale at the Tri-County News office, and Bob will have copies with him at book-signings and appearances. The book is a total of 480 riveting pages with 71 images.