As an adult, Joe Serksnis spent hours behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler, covering thousands of highway miles.
The long-haul trucker would sometimes find himself thinking about the hot, humid jungles of Vietnam. Back in the early 1970s, Joe served in the U.S. Army as a driver at a compound near Da Nang.
More often, his thoughts would center around two of his best friends in the war, David “Dave” Stelzel and David “Pharris” Vann. Serksnis would smile, remembering how they’d called him “that crazy Yankee.” He also remembered he’d made a promise to visit them once they were all back home.
But life happens.
The three finished their commitment to the U.S. Army. Serksnis went on to a 32-plus year career with the U.S. Postal service, Stelzel as a farmer and later a partner in D&H Farms in his home town of East Bernard, and Vann to his home in the Florida Panhandle.
Once Serksnis retired this year, he decided to keep the promise he’d made to his two friends when they were in Vietnam. He searched online for Stelzel and discovered his Army comrade had passed away in a tragic accident in 2017.
Serksnis was devastated, remembering the special bond the men forged when they were shipped overseas to Vietnam. The three had been assigned to the 334th S&S Company. Serksnis said they met at the 90th Replacement Company at Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base just outside of Saigon, South Vietnam in September, 1971.
Once there, the three shared stories about their life back home, their hopes and their dreams. They learned to rely on each other as they heard gunfire daily and knew the fighting wasn’t that far from them.
“Dave had my back and I had his,” Serksnis said. “Dave, me and Pharris were buds and we shared lots of laughs. Dave was quiet, but me and Pharris were wild.”
They took Polaroid pictures of where they were stationed and of some of the sights in Vietnam.
After the war, Serksnis put the photos in a box, gradually forgotten. The memories of that friendship, however, never faded. In retirement, Serksnis had the time to look up old acquaintances and was saddened again to read about Stelzel’s passing.
Serksnis made a decision – he’d try and find Stelzel’s family.
He got in touch with the Fort Bend Herald, the newspaper that printed the stories about the popular farmer. Serksnis sent a letter to the reporter who then reached out to Stelzel’s family. Plans were made for Serksnis and the Stelzels to correspond with each other via email.
But Serksnis kept looking at the pictures and decided 50 years was long enough to keep those memories to himself. He made copies of all the pictures he had, glued each one to a separate piece of paper, and wrote down everything he could remember about what was happening when the photo was taken.
Then he put the album and letters in a box, sealed it and sent the package on its way to Texas.
A Texas connection
Stelzel’s widow, Brenda Stelzel, was speechless when she found out someone wanted to get in touch with her about her late husband, someone who knew Stelzel when he was in the war.
“David didn’t talk much about what happened in the service,” she said.
To have the opportunity to hear about her husband from one of his buddies was a true gift.
Brenda Stelzel called her two daughters, Shae Allison and Brooke Woodward, and they made plans to Facetime with Serksnis. They couldn’t wait to see the pictures and, more importantly, talk to someone who knew their father before they were born.
When Shae and Brooke opened the album, they immediately teared up. There was their father – barely out of his teens, his blonde hair cut short. The familiar smile was there, and it was strange to see photos of their father in what seemed a different life.
Brenda Stelzel remembered what Stelzel looked like as a young man, but seeing the pictures of him in Vietnam brought her to tears as well.
With the photo album in front of them, Allison made the call to Willoghby, Ohio, on her laptop. Almost immediately, an eager Serksnis came face to face with three women with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.
They introduced themselves, and Serksnis proceeded to tell them about the promise he’d made 50 years ago. He apologized for not getting in touch with Stelzel before he passed away, but he was hoping he could share stories about his Texas friend with his family. Serksnis said he was thankful he could share what he had with his friend’s family.
Brenda Stelzel told Serksnis they had few photos from those days and no stories as Stelzel was reluctant to talk about his time in the service.
Serksnis filled in the blanks, his memory banks filled with dates, times and places. He described the Beach Club, a bar on the beach near their compound in China Beach. He said he, Stelzel and Vann drove general supply trucks, and the locals weren’t too happy to see them.
“They kept shooting at us although the war was winding down,” he said of their time there in 1971. The three were stationed in Vietnam for a 13-month assignment.
“I was scared to death,” Serksnis said. “I’d just turned 20 and here I was looking at a Quonset hut. It was hot and I could hear gunshots.”
Serksnis remembers Stelzel telling stories about his hometown back in Texas.
“Dave used to talk about ‘The Weekly Wiper,’” Serksnis recalled.
Brenda laughed, remembering that was what Stelzel affectionately called the newspaper in East Bernard. Stelzel was always a good driver, and Serksnis said Stelzel got the job of driving the first lieutenant around the compound.
Serksnis remembers Stelzel as a funny, quiet man with a great sense of humor.
“He was an easy-going kid from Texas,” Serksnis said, tearing up. “He calmed us down and didn’t let us get too wild.”
When Shae and Brooke heard that description, they nodded their heads in agreement, saying their dad was that way all through his life. Serksnis wasn’t surprised because Stelzel quietly kept them in line.
Shae said her dad kept everyone calm and never lost his cool. Serksnis said he wished he’d been able to catch up with Stelzel before he passed away, but talking with the Stelzel family gave him peace.
“Dave was well respected by me,” he told them. “This album and connecting with you is the best I could do.”
Serksnis told the Stelzels he’d been a long-distance trucker after the war and then went to work for the postal service, retiring after more than three decades. Brenda told Serksnis that Stelzel had been a farmer and had brought in his 42nd crop right before he passed away.
The phone call ended with tears and smiles and promises to keep in touch. For sure, the Stelzels will remember Joe and Debbie Serksnis at Christmas. Serksnis gave them a gift of seeing their father as a young man through the eyes of a best friend.
The Stelzels know their father will be with them in a special way. Tucked in with their packages this year will be one of the best gifts they’ve ever received – a slim photo album with pictures of a young David Stelzel, courtesy of a crazy Yankee.