Brothers who served in Vietnam together reflect on Memorial Day

For the Sterner family, Memorial Day is about more than having a day off from work or hosting a family cookout.

Dan Sterner and Steve Sterner each served a tour in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. A third brother, Donald, who died of asbestos poisoning last year, also served in Vietnam during the war.

Dan, the youngest, was stationed in the Mekong River area of southern Vietnam as a convoy runner from late 1969 to late 1970.

Steve was stationed further north in Vietnam with the Marine Corps from May 1969 to June 1970.

Donald, the oldest of the three, had finished his tour in 1968 before his brothers arrived. He served as a medic before being wounded and sent home.

The two surviving brothers planned to spend Memorial Day apart, each reflecting on their service, and that of others, in their own way.

Steve usually begins his Memorial Day at the annual flagpole ceremony in downtown Arbutus, then spends the rest of the day with his family. He rarely discusses his time in Vietnam.

"I just like to remember all the guys that didn't make it back, stuff like that," said the 62-year-old. "I kind of keep it to myself.

"Then it's back to reality," the Arbutus resident said. "We have a little cookout. It's just a holiday.

"It was a strange time," he said.

His brother usually makes a trip to Washington, D.C., to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

"I think I'm more into the service thing than they are," said the Elkridge resident, comparing his feelings to those of his brother and father.

"I go to Washington every Memorial Day," the 61-year-old said. "I'm the only one probably who can handle it."

He is, Steve said.

"I went to the Vietnam Memorial once," he said. "That's the most depressing place in the world, I think.

"When I went down there the first time, they had to carry me out. I was bawling," he said. "It's too depressing for me, I try not to think about it a whole lot."

Service a family tradition

Both brothers said they volunteered after their older brother was drafted.

Steve said it was something he felt he had to do.

"I guess it goes back to everyone in the family has served," he said on the feeling in their household growing up in Oella.

His grandfather served in World War I, his father served in the Army in World War II and his uncle was killed in Germany during World War II.

"It was our turn I guess. That's how we were brought up back then," he said.

Once his two older brothers had gone over, Dan decided it was his turn.

"It was our duty, that's the way I look at it," he said. "I was proud to be in the service.

"When you're young, you're dumb," he said.

He enlisted when he was 17 and spent six months stationed in Germany until he was old enough to go to Vietnam.

"I always wanted to go in the Army, ever since I was a kid," he said. "I couldn't let them be better than me. You know how siblings are."

Neither brother said they regret their decision to enlist. Both say it was an incredibly difficult time that had a dramatic impact on their lives.

Dan has a defibrillator in his chest after five heart attacks that are a result of his exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam.

"We didn't know (about Agent Orange)," he said. "We just thought it was raining all the time."

The Veterans Administration recognizes certain health problems associated with exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs' website. Among them are Ischemic heart disease, also known as "hardening of the arteries," which is characterized by a reduced supply of blood to the heart, that leads to chest pain.

"I just attributed all my health problems to hard living and age," Dan said when he first became sick years ago.

He said returning to regular life after his tour was hard because of the highly negative attitude toward the politically charged war.

"Today, everyone is heroes (when they return from war). We were baby killers," he said. "If they had let the generals run the war, we might have won it. But they let the politicians run it."

"Back then, you were just like a replacement," his brother said. "You go over, come back, go over, come back. No fanfare or nothing, you just go back to what you were doing. No parades and all that."

"War isn't what it's cracked up to be, believe me," he said. "When I got my first taste of combat, I remember saying to myself, 'What the hell am I doing here?' "

Dan remains active in veterans organizations such the Dewey Lowman American Legion Post in Arbutus and the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Ellicott City.

Steve prefers to keep that time of his life in the past.

"I don't talk about it much," he said. "I don't dwell on it, I try not to."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad