Brothers on the battlefield: Vietnam veterans who lost contact for 43 years reunite in northwest Iowa
ROCK RAPIDS, Iowa — The year was 1967.
Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl, Congress created the Public Broadcasting Service, Frank Sinatra earned both record and album of the year, and half a world away, American soldiers were at war in Vietnam.
History books note the war’s start on Nov. 1, 1955 and end on April 30, 1975 with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army. By then, American troops had been out of Vietnam for two years.
The war in Vietnam took an immense toll on the United States, with the casualties including more than 58,000 American soldiers. Many who survived continue to relive the war through nightmares and post traumatic stress. They live with battle scars — the seen and unseen.
Chosen to serve
In January 1967, John Breuer was 19 years old. A high school drop-out, he was an established farmer near Little Rock, Iowa, when Uncle Sam came calling.
Breuer, now of Rock Rapids, was drafted by the U.S. Army and, after completing basic and advanced military training, was sent to Vietnam in June 1967.
Halfway across the country, Iowa native and California transplant Rolin Kliever, then 21, was six months into what was to be a year in Vietnam with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division, stationed near Cu Chi. Kliever met Breuer when the Iowa farmer joined up with the First Brigade, 27th Battalion, also known as the Wolfhounds.
“One day I said to him, ‘Where are you from?’” recalled Breuer. Kliever’s response was Hanford, Calif., but upon learning of Breuer’s Iowa roots, confessed he was born in Belmond, Iowa.
“My mom and dad moved back to Iowa while I was in Vietnam,” Kliever said. They settled in Ireton — about an hour southwest of Breuer’s hometown.
“Once I found out, it was like having someone living next door,” Breuer said. “Most of the time, you didn’t run across someone from Iowa.”
The two discovered they had more in common when Breuer said he was a farmer and Kliever told of his job on a California ranch.
“We kind of hit it off,” Kliever said.
“When we got done hunting, we’d talk about farming,” added Breuer.
“And what we were going to do when we got back home,” continued Kliever.
Breuer would return to farming, and Kliever was promised his ranch job would be there when he came back. Those plans were the only thing that kept them going, Breuer said.
Dropped into battle
As foot soldiers, Breuer and Kliever spent their days among jungle brush, rice paddies, dikes and dugouts. Armed with machine guns, rounds of artillery and hand grenades, they often fought against an enemy they couldn’t see.
On a September afternoon, when Breuer was just three months into his tour of duty, he and Kliever were aboard one of half a dozen choppers carrying about 25 soldiers into combat assault.
“The chopper pilot said there was a hot LZ (landing zone) and we had to jump from the choppers,” Breuer said. “All that we had to hide behind was rice paddy dikes.
“Once you hit the ground, you decided what direction to run based on how the mud was flying around you,” he added.
During the constant gun flight, Breuer took a shot to his left shoulder, just below the collarbone.
“I have a hole in the front about the size of a dime and the size of a silver dollar on the back,” Breuer said.
A nearby medic responded immediately, giving Breuer morphine to dull the pain. When word made its way to Kliever, he found Breuer and promised to get his buddy the few things he requested.
It wasn’t until after dark that a chopper arrived to collect the injured Breuer, and Kliever wondered if he’d ever see his newfound friend again.
Breuer was taken to a forward medevac unit where exploratory surgery was done on his shoulder. From there, he spent two weeks in a hospital in Japan before being transferred to Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver. He spent eight months in rehab in that facility, and was given a medical discharge in May 1968 after it was deemed he wouldn’t be able to return to battle. For his injury, Breuer was given the military’s Purple Heart.
While Breuer was forced to leave the battlefield that September night, Kliever continued with the combat assault mission. A machine gunner with an M-60, Kliever recalled his gun getting so hot that a shell got stuck in the barrel.
“Someone was carrying an extra barrel so I could put a new barrel on and I could keep shooting,” Kliever said. “We were pinned down quite a while — we couldn’t move.”
The firefight continued until the Americans came in and began dropping bombs. Kliever and fellow soldiers spent the night laying in water and mud to conceal themselves.
“The next morning, we couldn’t find nothing — no shells, no people, no bodies,” Kliever said. “The VC (Viet Cong) cleaned it all up.”
Kliever remained on the battlefields of Vietnam until December 1967, completing a one-year and two-day tour of duty. He returned home with both a Purple Heart (he took shrapnel to the chest when a grenade exploded), and the Bronze Star for bravery.
“I just kept firing that machine gun to try to save my life and whoever else,” Kliever said.
When he returned to the U.S., Kliever went to Ireton to visit his parents, and then on to Breuer’s house near Little Rock, thanks to an address he found on some of Breuer’s mail.
Kliever, though, wasn’t done with his service. He went on to Fort Riley, Kan., until his honorable discharge from the military on June 14, 1968.
Though his parents begged him to return to Iowa, Kliever was determined to move back to California and return to ranch work.
During subsequent visits to northwest Iowa, Kliever longed to find his Army buddy, Breuer, but he’d lost the address and confused Sheldon with Sibley, hence searching all around Sheldon for the northwest Iowa farmer.
“I came out here looking for this guy about 10 times and couldn’t find him,” Kliever recalled.
Meanwhile, Breuer tried to find Kliever in California.
“Different times, people would say you could find him on the Internet, but you had to spell the name just perfectly,” Breuer said. “I even got in the Hanford area and would ask around. A lot of times it was a dead end. Finally I figured he was in a cemetery.”
For 43 years, each began to wonder if the other was still living. In that time, Breuer had sold his dairy and began work as a coast-to-coast livestock hauler, and Kliever left the ranch and began hauling feed to California ranchers.
Now, they ponder the possibility they made deliveries to some of the same California ranches — Breuer with cattle and Kliever with feed — on the same day.
Six years ago, not long after Breuer retired from trucking, he was on a trip with two grandsons to California and once again tried to find Kliever. This time, he paged through a Hanford phone book and came across one person by that last name.
Breuer called the number and left a message for the man — an attorney whom he later discovered was Rolin Kliever’s son.
Kliever, unfortunately, didn’t get the message until later that day. By the time he reached Breuer on his cell phone, they had already left the area.
“When I called and he answered the phone, I knew it was him — it was his voice,” Kliever said. “He found me.”
Since that day six years ago, the two have met several times. Kliever has returned to northwest Iowa a handful of times, and Breuer has visited Kliever twice in California. Last weekend, Kliever reunited with Breuer and his wife, Myra, in Rock Rapids.
When the two men get together, conversation often turns to their time in Vietnam and how they were among the lucky ones to make it home — their lives forever changed by war.
“I came back a different person — I was ornery,” Kliever said. “It changed me completely. I just never was the same, really.”
“They got my shoulder fixed, but they didn’t fix my head,” Breuer added.
“There was times I didn’t think I’d see 21. Back then, we were lucky to make the next day,” Breuer shared. “There’s 58,000 that didn’t. They’d have liked to seen another day, too — another 50 years.”
Both Kliever and Breuer deal with the effects of their time in Vietnam, including PTSD. Breuer still lives the nightmares of war, and for the past two years has been part of a Vietnam veterans group at the VA’s Vet Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.