Remembering Uncle Buddy
May is an important month for family historians. May is the month when we remember those who have died in the service of our country. For me, May holds an additional significance, because it is the anniversary of the death of my uncle Buddy, who was killed in Vietnam a little over a year before I was born.
When I turned 18, I went to a government building in LaCrosse and registered for the Selective Service. It was a big day for me — a rite of passage. As an adult, I could be called upon to serve in the military, and possibly die in that service. I took it seriously.
My parents’ generation lived almost 10 years with an active draft, and each young man who turned 18 during those years lived with the real possibility of being called to serve. Each person faced the Vietnam war draft in a different way. In 1967, my twin uncles, Joel and Byrl Gaertner (Jody and Buddy), decided that instead of waiting, they would enlist in the Marines. It was a way of having some control in how they would serve. For my uncle Buddy it was a fateful day. He was Killed In Action on May 18th of 1968 during the Ho Chi Min birthday offensive.
Within two years of my own signing up for the selective service, Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and President Bush had committed our armed forces to fight. My friends and I had many conversations about the war and what we might do if there was a draft. We watched the build up to war on TV. Being drafted was not an abstract possibility. All of us had some connection to men who had served in Vietnam, and movies about the Vietnam War were on the must see list for my generation. And for me it was personal.
Throughout my childhood, my family would go to our cabin in northern Minnesota. That was where the stories of uncle Buddy lived. Buddy and Jody were mirror image identical twins. They were born on my father’s 3rd birthday, August 16th, 1947. Like many identical twins, Jody and Buddy were more closely bonded with each other than with the rest of the world.
At the cabin, my grandma would tell stories of Buddy and Jody and how they could build anything. She would point to a table or a dock and say how they built it. She talked about how they had their own language. She was writing a book filled with stories of the twins. My grandma was all love and smiles with us, but looking back now, I can see how her heart was broken. Her grief and the grief of the rest of my father’s family was an open wound during my childhood.
Years later, as my skills as a genealogist grew, I discovered many documents related to my uncle’s service and his death. Each document helped build a picture for me about a time in my family just before I came along.
The various websites I use each have something different to offer. One website has been digitizing yearbook photos. Another website includes photos of gravestones and information from cemeteries. Another website has newspaper stories in a database, searchable by names and dates. There are other websites with specific military information.
My passion for family history also brought me to my aunt Gail, who holds the family photo albums. She sat with me and pointed to photos and told me stories. I took out my phone and took photos of the photos.
My uncle Buddy went to UW Stout in Menomonie before he enlisted. He is one of the alumni who were honored in 2013 on a plaque in Memorial Student Center.
When my school’s Junior High went to Washington DC, my students helped me find Buddy’s name on the Wall. It made it personal for everyone.
Buddy is buried at Fort Snelling Cemetery.
Looking at my family history and the family histories of people who work with me as a genealogist, I hold my breath when I look at the family before and after a major war. In the case of World War II, almost every able-bodied male in my tree served in some way, and many of my great aunts served as nurses. The Civil War was another time of almost universal service. Usually the people who are in the direct line survived the conflict, but that is not always true for the brothers.
Although my friends and I lived through a brief existential moment at the break of Gulf War I, we were never called to serve by the draft. Since the Vietnam War, all of America’s armed conflicts have been fought by a “volunteer” military. Many families do not have a single person who fought in these conflicts. Advances in medicine, armor, and tactics also mean that those who went through those conflicts were more likely to come home alive, if not whole. This means that for future generations, Memorial Day might become less of a personal experience of loss, and more of a holiday to barbecue and get out on the water somewhere. We need to remember.
Part of my job as a genealogist is to hold up a mirror to myself or my client. My goal is to see myself and my family for who I am and who we are. I cannot look away from the impact of war and the trauma of loss on my family. To look away might make me numb to the loss felt by families today when they lose a family member in an armed conflict or afterwards to PTSD and suicide. Memorial Day is here to remind us of the cost of war and for us to not engage in war lightly.
So let us pour one out for the brothers who did not make it home. Almost every family for whom I have researched has at least one. Sometimes there are no documents that show what happened. They are there in the 1860 census and gone in the 1870 census. That is all that is left of a life that was cut short. A branch of the tree lopped off. But other times, like with my uncle Buddy, the life and death of the family member can be illuminated with dozens of documents, newspaper stories, and photos. It is these moments that make all the research worth the while. Thank you for your service, uncle Buddy.
This essay is a preview of the July version of my monthly column about genealogy for our local paper, The Hay River Review, published in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin.
A note from my dad, Mark Gaertner: “Thank you for all the pictures and memories of my brother — I thought a lot about him on Memorial Day. Did you know that Buddy had two very large funerals — one in Rochester and one in Richfield. They had to set up video in the gym at Mt Calvary to handle the overload before heading to Fort Snelling. This was at a time when many were protesting the war. Also the story is that Joel almost died the same day and was geographically close to Buddy when he died. (Byrl was just out of DaNang and Joel had been at Khe Sanh.)”