Northland family shares cross-generational experiences in Vietnam

When he was a kid, Chad Polecheck knew that his dad had fought in the Vietnam War. "We didn't talk about it, but we didn't avoid talking about it, either," Chad said. His father's memories were kept on three carousels of slides. Chad adds: "I tho...

Chad Polecheck
Chad Polecheck donating coloring books to Duc Pho, Vietnam, kindergarteners. A plaque on their school from 2002 reads "East Meets West: A Gift from the Northland Vietnam Veterans Association of Duluth, Minnesota." Submitted photo

When he was a kid, Chad Polecheck knew that his dad had fought in the Vietnam War.

"We didn't talk about it, but we didn't avoid talking about it, either," Chad said. His father's memories were kept on three carousels of slides.

Chad adds: "I thought of it as my dad's really interesting camping trip."

His father, Jon, didn't know anything about Vietnam when he went there, and no one talked about it much when he returned. So the Polechecks more or less forgot about Vietnam for the next 35 years.

But these days, Chad's passport bears a fresh stamp from Vietnam, and, given the opportunity, he may return.


His mother, Jan, has been to Vietnam twice. She loves it ... although on one occasion she could not bring herself to sample one local delicacy: a bowl of crickets.

Jon has been to Vietnam three times, and, he adds, "I would live there" -- despite the absence of clean water, toilets, refrigeration and electricity in the majority of the country.

How did this Northland family gain such a passion for Vietnam?

It all began when Chad had shoulder surgery a few years ago. He had some free time as he recovered, so he offered to transfer his father's Vietnam slides onto a CD. Chad viewed the familiar images with fresh eyes. He wanted to understand more.

He knew the basic facts: In 1968, the elder Polecheck had barely removed his college graduation cap and gown when he was notified by the draft board that he would be drafted in 30 days. A pragmatist, he went looking for work.

He became a forest ranger trainee and, in October 1968, was assigned to a remote ranger station near Big Falls, Minn. Population: 250.

When he walked into the office, Jan was the receptionist on duty. (A senior at Big Falls High School who needed to practice her typing skills for school, she volunteered at the station.)

Their first date was a hunting trip.


By Thanksgiving, Jan and Jon were engaged.

Jon still had not been called up.

He was ordered to report for training in February 1969. When Jon learned that he would be sent to Georgia for advanced training in July, Jan made hurried plans for a summer wedding.

On July 5, 1969, they were married -- and the following morning Jon headed to Fort Benning, Georgia. Jan followed, living in a trailer just off the base, barely squeaking by financially. To entertain herself, she cut up one of her cardboard moving boxes and made a sturdy deck of playing cards.

The stack stood about 24 inches high.

Every Wednesday night, the newlyweds were allowed to see each other for one hour. They shared the orderly room with 10 other couples, and the servicemen had to clean their M16 rifles the entire time.

Soon Jon flew to Vietnam. He was taken to Duc Pho, a village with an Army compound just outside of it. From there he was flown 13 miles by helicopter to San Juan Hill, a firebase in the mountains. (A "firebase" is an area in a war zone where artillery can be rounded up to provide heavy firepower to support different military units.)

Jon's firebase supported the infantry. Their guns had a range of six miles. He was one of about 100 men there, and the gunnery sergeant for one of the four mortar squads.


The infantry would radio in coordinates, and the firebase would take aim and fire. It rained frequently, though, meaning that each time a mortar was fired the guns slipped in the mud, degrading their ability to fire with accuracy. In his free time, Jon remedied this by building a cement gun ring for his squad's mortar.

Sometimes the men had to help with a combat assault beyond the six-mile radius. They would have to scramble aboard a helicopter and be flown to the site.

The loaded helicopter would sweep low to the ground; the men would throw their weapons out and jump after them into a crater (freshly made by a dropped bomb).

Their food was mostly rations left over from World War II and long-range patrol rations (LRPs). They lived in "hooches," ingenious dwellings built using mortar boxes filled with dirt to create walls.

Jan waited in Big Falls for Jon to return and noted the date of each of his letters, reassuring herself, At least he was alive when he wrote this. Jon was discharged Dec. 15, 1970. He was proud that he did his part in Vietnam to the best of his ability, and that he "didn't lose anybody."

Over time, however, he became more ambivalent about the American policy that had taken him there. He wondered why he had been sent.

And that, he said, was why "I was happy that I went back."

He went back in 2006, with Jan, on a tour organized by Military Historical Tours. He learned more about Vietnam in those two weeks than he had in his year there.


Then Jon and Jan were invited to go on a trip to Vietnam with one of Jon's friends from San Juan Hill, Chuck Theusch.

Theusch is an attorney and the head of Libraries of Vietnam, which sponsors libraries for children in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; he was going to Vietnam to repair a library. The Polechecks were interested.

They called their son, Chad: Would he like to join them? Chad was unsure how his professors at the University of Wisconsin-Superior would respond to the idea of a three-week absence. To his surprise, they encouraged him to go: It was an opportunity to apply his social-work skills to the study of another country.

To prepare, Chad attempted to gather some basic information about Vietnam that he would need as a social worker. He was stunned to discover how little such information existed about Vietnam, a place that has no census and many of whose citizens don't even have shoes. (But, as he learned when he and his parents arrived in Vietnam recently, almost everyone has a cell phone.)

According to the family, Vietnam was beautiful -- but difficult -- by tourist standards. The lack of plumbing and the extreme heat and humidity made for a sometimes-uncomfortable trip.

But experiencing Vietnam changed Chad's view of his own life. Suddenly, he realized, "I have extra. Extra food in the cupboard ... extra clothes in the closet."

The trip affected Jan and Jon, too. Jan, speaking of the war, said that "Jon was plucked out of his life, sent to fight, and then returned to his life."

On his return visits to Vietnam, Jon began to make sense of his first year there and started embracing Vietnam on its own terms. While there, the Polechecks helped with several Children's Library International projects. Chad was also able to gather invaluable research information firsthand.


At Jan's urging, they visited a one-room schoolhouse built with funds from the NVVA and the city of Duluth. The neat, well-maintained building still serves children from ages 2 to 5. A plaque from 2002 on the wall reads: "A gift from the North-land Vietnam Veterans Association of Duluth, Minnesota."

At the school, Chad opened a suitcase and pulled out crayons and coloring books for the students. They were thrilled.

And he was delighted.

Chad Polecheck will present the slide show and discussion "Vietnam Now" at 5 p.m. Tuesday at UWS's Yellow Jacket Union in the Great Room. Complimentary authentic Vietnamese appetizers will be provided.

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