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‘It was a nightmare’

Sister remembers a brother lost in Vietnam

Tony Quitmeyer of Parkers Prairie, in 1967, before leaving for Vietnam Contributed photo

Tony Quitmeyer grew up in Parkers Prairie, Minn., and graduated with the class of 1966 from Parkers Prairie High School. He had just started to experience life in the “real world” when his life was cut short in a foxhole in Vietnam.

“Like many classmates, Tony thought he would work a year first to save money before going to college,” said Tony’s sister, Grace (Quitmeyer) Rubner, of Parkers Prairie. “By early 1967, he had a girlfriend and plans of going to college in the fall.”

At this same time, the Vietnam conflict was escalating, and young men and boys were being drafted.

“Boys were getting drafted by a number. They announced the numbers on the radio,” said Grace. “What I recall, they knew ahead of time if they were going to get drafted, and it was better to enlist and have that on your record than be drafted. He knew his number was coming up, so he decided to enlist.”

It was March 1967. Tony had been out of high school for 10 months.

“The year before he left, he was playing football, basketball, baseball and acting in the school play,” said Grace. “He loved music and dancing and had many friends. He was a big flirt and had a great personality. Tony was well liked and very popular. It seemed like he was always laughing with his friends. He loved life.”

By the fall of 1967, Tony was on his way to Vietnam.

Tony Quitmeyer (shirtless) with his fellow soldiers in Vietnam. Laying down and looking at the camera (lower right) is his friend, Erle Gooding. Contributed photo

“Tony wrote home often. We were always receiving letters and sending packages full of goodies to him and to some of his buddies,” Grace remembered. “There were no computers or cell phones. We had no communication with him except snail mail.”

The mail was slow, too, as it had to make its way half way around the world.

“It often took days or weeks to get a letter,” she said.

The Quitmeyer family went on a family vacation to California at the end of 1967. They were just getting back into the regular routine of school and work when they received a visit from two men, a Parkers Prairie police officer and a military official.

“It was Jan. 9, 1968,” said Grace. “They told our family that Tony was MIA (missing in action). I cannot tell you the feeling we had. It was an unbelievable, devastating sadness of life being sucked right out of you. Our family, friends, schoolmates and the rest of the community were all numb.”

Four days later, on Jan. 13, 1968, the two men returned with more bad news.

“They told our family that Tony had been killed in action,” said Grace, who was a freshman in high school at the time. “It was a nightmare, an overloading amount of grief that I would not wish on my worst enemy.”

During the rest of January and most of February, the family continued to receive letters and pictures from Tony. Each one was cherished but just as painful to read.

At the end of January, Tony’s body was brought home to Parkers Prairie.

“We buried him on Jan. 24, 15 days after he had been killed,” said Grace.

Tony wasn’t the only one from Parkers Prairie who died in the Vietnam conflict.

“Warren Hall, Ralph Guck, Carlye Guenther, Albert Bast and Eddie Haugen all lived in a 15-mile radius of Parkers Prairie; all were killed in Vietnam,” said Grace. “And one of Tony’s classmates, Ernie Lind, was serving and had just gone to Germany from Vietnam and was killed in a car accident in Germany the following year.”

The whole community mourned for years over these boys, and some are still mourning the loss.

“Time heals much of it, but I don’t know how anyone gets through this without faith in God,” said Grace. “I cannot tell you how emotional it was for me to watch my parents, my brother and my sisters try to handle this, too, and the whole community.”

Tony’s girlfriend, Sue Smith, of Moorhead, also received many letters from Tony during his days in Vietnam. In one of his last letters, he wrote, “My love, can’t wait for next Christmas to spend it with you…” Those words carried extra weight later that year when Sue was killed in a car accident near Jamestown, N.D.

Grace thinks often about her brother, Tony, and how his life could have been. Forty years after his death, Grace received one call that she will never forget.

“It was a man named Romaine Vollier, a banker from Scottsdale, Ariz. I had never heard of him. He said he was one of Tony’s good friends from Vietnam. He said Tony saved his life by telling him to go to the next foxhole. He said he just wanted our family to know he is forever thankful for him telling him that. He said he would never forget Tony and that he was a nice and fun guy.”

Tony’s mom had passed away shortly before the phone call from Vollier. Coincidentally, Grace’s older sister went snowbirding that winter and was just 20 miles away from Vollier. So they met up.

“I like to think that mom was with Tony in heaven and was letting us know he was there and all was good,” said Grace.

Vollier wrote about Tony, “Rest in Peace Tony. You have been and always will be in my thoughts and prayers, not only for the supreme sacrifice you made for your country but for your friendship and the always positive outlook you brought to the field each day.”

Years later, in 2014, another phone call was made. This time from Grace to another one of Tony’s foxhole friends.

“I started to write a bucket list, and one thing on my list was to call or visit my brother’s friend, Erle Gooding,” she said. “He was with Tony in Vietnam, and Tony mentioned him many times in the letters. Erle was in many photos with Tony and others.”

Grace (Quitmeyer) Rubner and Erle Gooding met in 2015. Both have one thing in common. Both were close to Tony Quitmeyer. Contributed photo

Grace called the Gooding residence and asked if the man answering the phone was in Vietnam with Tony Quitmeyer. She said she was Tony’s youngest sister, and she wanted to call and thank him for being a good friend of Tony.

“The phone went silent and then I heard crying,” she said. “I told him I didn’t call him to make him cry. He said it was the best phone call he had ever had, and they were all tears of joy that would help him heal. By that time, we were both crying.”

Erle, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), told Grace there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t think about Tony. He was in a foxhole that got hit the early foggy morning of Jan. 9, 1968. He said he thought he was going to die, too, and remembers not being able to breathe.

“He could not say enough good things about Tony, his family and his hometown called Parkers Prairie, Minn.,” said Grace.

In 2015, Grace and a friend flew to Houston, Texas, and met up with Erle Gooding and his wife.

“He was a wonderful, funny, gracious man,” said Grace. “I could see why my brother connected with him. He is super kind and has a great sense of humor. Like many of those who have been in war, he endured many bumps on the road of what life has handed him.

Later that year, Grace gave a speech about her brother at the Veterans Day program at Parkers Prairie High School. Down the hallway from where she spoke is a plaque commemorating the life and service of Tony. Hundreds of kids were in attendance, along with several community members. Some members of the class of 1966 were also in attendance. Tears were shed by young and old.

“Tony is forever in our hearts, never forgotten,” said Grace.

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