Upon returning from Vietnam in 1967, Bob Lembke was anxious to change out of his uniform and blend in with the rest of the world.
“Being a Vietnam veteran was not a badge of honor at that time,” he said. “For decades, you really didn’t feel any pride in being a veteran.”
The Globe Gazette will publish 50 stories — starting on Veterans Day — about North Iowa’s Vietnam Veterans. The stories will appear on Sundays…
Lembke, who grew up in Rockwell but now lives in Mason City, felt his true homecoming didn’t occur until nearly 50 years after his service.
“I finally came home this August with Operation LZ,” Lembke said. “That’s when I finally felt Vietnam veterans were welcome.”
At 22, Lembke was drafted into the Army’s Ninth Infantry Division. He served in the Mekong Delta, where temperatures reached 113 degrees.
Having previously worked in a bank before the draft, he worked as a senior finance specialist but was also responsible for other duties.
“One of the first things I found out, that if you’re in the infantry division, you’re infantry first, no matter what your military assignment is,” he said.
He spent close to two months on perimeter guard duty, something he said would “give you a real thrill” at times, especially when animals would hit trip wires, resulting in flares being sent up.
One night an oversized rat rustled through grass near Lembke’s camp, seeking a drink of water from a puddle.
“I thought for sure we were under attack,” he said, noting his camp experienced mortar and human wave attacks. “You always had to be under alert.”
Another part of Lembke’s assignment involved paying wounded troops, a job he said was an eye-opening experience.
“I would thank my lucky stars when I left the hospitals,” he said. “I was very, very blessed, because a lot of them were wounded very badly.”
After returning home, Lembke returned to banking, which ended up being a 49-career for him. He is now retired.
The thought of those left behind still weighs on him. While speaking with Mason City High School students this fall about the war, he began to choke up when speaking about casualties, which includes the loss of a younger friend he once attended church with in Rockwell.
He said the attitude change about the war in recent years has helped him and others feel comfortable talking about their experiences.
After retiring, Lembke taught lifelong learning classes at North Iowa Area Community College about Vietnam.
“I still get emotional, but it’s been a big turning point for me,” he said. “People are finally starting to realize there was some value to it (the war), which did make a difference in the world.”
He has no regrets about his military service.
“I did what I was supposed to do as a U.S. citizen,” he said. “I would do it again if I was 20 years old.”