BRITT | The sights and sounds of war still haunt Bob Steenlage 50 years after serving in Vietnam.
But it’s getting better.
“It did not take away all the (post-traumatic stress disorder), but it took away a lot of the torment,” he said.
In January, Steenlage, 74, a 1962 Britt High School graduate and Iowa's first four-time state wrestling champion, returned to Vietnam with four of his sons for a two-week trip.
The trip featured visits to Pleiku, Kontum and Dak To, where he served between 1967 and 1968 with the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.
The trip, he said, proved to be a much-needed healing experience.
“Before I went there, I couldn’t talk about it,” he said.
Growing up, Steenlage had no intention of serving in the military because of a strained relationship with his father, who served in World War II and returned with “bad battle fatigue” and struggled with alcoholism.
“I didn’t want to go through what my dad went through,” he said.
But Steenlage, the first in his family to attend college, was being looked at by scouts from West Point Military Academy, and after a brief visit to the academy, he decided to go without giving much thought to what he’d be doing upon graduation.
During his time at West Point, Steenlage wrestled for four years and became a Division I NCAA All-American. When he graduated from West Point and airborne and ranger schools in 1966, he had a four-year obligation to serve in the U.S. Army.
He was in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.
Steenlage, who completed his military service as a company commander, was assigned to the signal corps before he was transferred to patrol after the Tet Offensive began on Jan. 30, 1968, because of his West Point background, and that’s when things got dangerous.
Steenlage recalls almost getting killed twice during the war. Those experiences, as well as the “horrible things” he witnessed on patrol and learned of what the U.S. troops were doing to villagers once he returned, caused his PTSD.
“I started feeling guilty for what the United States did to them,” he said.
And like his father, he, too, struggled to connect with his two oldest sons when he returned from the war because of the guilt — something he’d carry for decades as he and his wife of 50-plus years, Bobbi, raised their five sons and three daughters.
In recent years with the growing instability in the world with IS and the “dishonesty of the government,” Steenlage, who now lives in Galesville, Wisconsin, said he started having regular nightmares, so he began checking in with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That’s what prompted a trip to Vietnam after his children had spent five years trying to coax him into returning to southeast Asia.
“That was huge,” Steenlage said. “I’m a changed person.”
During the trip, which was from Jan. 3 to 16, Steenlage and his sons started in Hanoi and traveled south to Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon during the war, where they encountered many relatives and friends of former North Vietnamese Army soldiers he — and many other American soldiers — fought against during the war. Many of whom, he said, also suffered from PTSD and were struggling to cope.
“What I found out is they are not blaming me, the soldier. They’re blaming their government and our government,” Steenlage said. “They want to be friends, and that took away … some of my torment.”
And that has helped heal some of the brokenness between him and his sons, he said.
Steenlage said he'd recommend the trip to Vietnam for other veterans, like him, struggling to cope with PTSD.
“They will find out firsthand that the soldiers we fought against are just like Americans. They were forced into (it),” Steenlage said.
Steenlage will speak to the Britt Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Veterans Building, located across from the Britt Municipal Building on Main Avenue South. The event is open to the public.
Veterans or others with questions about Steenlage’s trip can call him at 608-323-2065, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website, www.bobsteenlage.com.
MASON CITY | The Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) is still waiting on proof of financing from G8, the hotel developer chosen by the Mason City Council to build a hotel south of Southbridge Mall.
The IEDA board, however, could decide to award state money — up to $10 million for the nearly $39 million River City Renaissance Project — without that proof, according to IEDA project manager Alaina Santizo.
Santizo and other key players in the project, including G8 backer Steve Noto and city officials, met with board members after its meeting last month.
"We did have a discussion with the developer (Philip Chodur) and two members of my board to try and find a path through that," she said Thursday about the current financing situation. "The board is seriously considering going ahead with the award without the financing."
The current roadblock appears to stem from the current development agreement between G8 and the city. Chad Schreck, President and CEO of the North Iowa Corridor, alerted Santizo of this in an email Jan. 16.
"A big obstacle they (G8) are running up against for the financing is that the Development Agreement with the City requires IEDA approval of the project prior to going into effect." Schreck wrote. "That in turn is causing the bank to say they won’t proceed without IEDA approval. It has put them in a bit of a catch 22 since the board is waiting for the financing commitment."
The email was obtained through an open records request by the Globe Gazette.
Iowa's open records laws, also known as “sunshine laws,” attempt to ensure state government at all levels is as transparent and accountable to the public as possible, according to the Iowa Public Information Board, which oversees open records and open meetings complaints.
In an interview with the Globe Gazette Thursday, Schreck said he is confident G8, the city and IEDA will figure out how to move the project forward, even if the hotel financing doesn't fall into place immediately.
As of Thursday afternoon, Mason City Interim City Administrator Kevin Jacobson said he hadn't received confirmation of hotel financing.
Santizo said if the board decides to drop the proof of financing requirement before awarding state money, more contingencies would probably be created to protect the money.
That could mean written updates to IEDA as the project continues — but Santizo emphasized board members are the ones who make that decision.
"I don’t think the board wants to be the holdup in financing in the project," she said. "I think that point was heard and is really what is giving that extra consideration to go ahead."
The Globe's open records request also revealed the IEDA was also considering a South Delaware Avenue Skyway development agreement, among other contingencies.
Santizo, who sent those contingencies in an email to Schreck, Jacobson and Mason City Development Services Department Director Steven Van Steenhuyse Nov. 13, 2017, said those were just preliminary suggestions when Gatehouse was still the developer for the project.
She added the bid-off and switching from Gatehouse to G8 steered conversations toward the hotel developer side of the project.
Some have questioned Philip Chodur and G8's commitment to the project, especially since he has missed construction deadlines before and previously sued the city and the Mason City Chamber Foundation for breach of contract. He recently dropped that civil lawsuit.
G8 supporter Steve Noto, in an email dated Dec. 20, 2017, to Santizo and city officials, explained the status of various development agreements between the city and G8. He also stated G8's dedication to the project.
"Gatehouse made a lot of promises to this community," Noto wrote. "But they never offered any guarantees, financial or otherwise. We have the capacity to make this project a success."
Noto could not be reached for comment via email or a phone call Thursday.
When asked about G8's commitment to the project, Schreck noted he is confident in Chodur and the local partners he has brought together, including Noto, Henkel Construction and WKHS, among others.
"Those guys have gotten a heck of a lot of things done in this area," he said later adding: "I believe they’re (G8) bringing everyone to the table they need to and they’re taking the steps to make it happen."
The deadline for all requirements for the project to be met, so the IEDA can award the money, is June 30. Santizo said legal counsel would be involved if an agreement between the city, G8 and the IEDA isn't reached at that point.
She added, however, that she believes an agreement will be reached before then, noting the meeting between IEDA board members and project stakeholders last month.
"I thought the meeting was really positive … the comments were everybody’s shared interests in finding a path forward," Santizo said. "But our board was very clear they take their job as stewards of these state dollars very seriously … if the board were to take action, they wanted to know how quickly could things proceed to full financing."