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Soldiers reconnect 53 years later

Men were unknowingly living just 97 miles apart

By Scott Thoma

Don Enstad, left, and Denny Garms, who were in basic training together in 1968, reunited in Janesville after 53 years earlier this summer. Contributed photo

Don Enstad and Denny Garms were in basic training together. For the last 53, both Enstad and Garms wondered what happened to the other. The two men were able to catch up on the last 53 year after reuniting this summer.

Enstad graduated from Westbrook High School in 1964, and Garms graduated from nearby Mountain Lake in 1965.

After being drafted two days apart in January of 1968, the two men were sent to serve basic training in Fort Lewis, Washington. They had never met before but hung out together at times during basic training because of their Minnesota connection.

“Where we were for basic training, a good share of the guys were farm boys from Minnesota and the others were from California,” said Enstad. “So, the Minnesota guys kind of hung out together.”

Following basic training, Enstad and Garms were assigned to different locations; Enstad to Fort Gordon, Georgia and Garms to Fort Polk, Louisiana. They did not stay in touch and had no idea if the other had made it back home or had been killed in action.

“I wondered about the guys I went to basic training with,” said Garms. “I know at least three or four of them were killed in Vietnam.”

Basic training photo from 1968. Enstad is the third man on the left in the front row. Garms is in the back row, far right. Contributed photo

The two men eventually were sent to combat zones in Vietnam less than 100 miles apart. They each returned home and had no connection with the other for the past five decades, even though they unknowingly were living only 97 miles apart; Enstad in Walnut Grove and Garms in Janesville.

Enstad and his wife are snowbirds that live in Arizona during the winter months. By chance one day in January of 2020, they were at a party and overheard a man mention that he was from Minnesota.

“We started talking to him and found out his name was Tom Holman and he was from Windom,” said Enstad. “I mentioned to him that I was in Vietnam and he said he had a friend named Denny Garms who was in Vietnam.”

Enstad recalled being in basic training with a man named Denny Garms and wondered if it was the same person. After talking to Holman a little more, he soon realized it was the same man. So Enstad got Garms’ phone number from Holman.

“Tom and I were in 4-H together and played ball together for many years,” said Garms. “He moved to Arizona several years ago.”

Denny Garms at base camp in Cu Chi, Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division 3/4 Calvary in 1968. Contributed photo

Enstad called Garms and the two were planning to get together sometime when the Enstads returned to Walnut Grove in the spring, but the pandemic put everything on hold.

Recently, Enstad had to have a checkup at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. En route, he and his wife passed through Janesville. Before their return trip, they called Garms to see if he and his wife, Linda, wanted to get together.

On July 14, the two were reunited at the Purple Goose Eatery and Saloon in Janesville.

“It was really fun catching up. The stories just started flowing,” said Enstad, who celebrated his 75th birthday a week after meeting with Garms.

“We talked about where we were stationed, what we have been doing since the war, our families and a lot of other things,” said Garms. “That’s when we found out that we were less than 100 miles apart in Vietnam.”

Enstad was in communications in Vietnam, while Garms was a personnel carrier commander. Both were involved in combat at times.

Garms received two Purple Hearts while aboard a carrier that was struck by rocket-propelled grenades (RPG). The first time he had shrapnel in his legs that required him to be hospitalized in the base camp for two weeks.

Don Enstad in 1968 in Fort Gordon, Georgia before leaving for Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division. Contributed photo

“I was thinking ‘Hey, maybe I won’t have to go back out into the field’,” Garms recalled. “But they sent me right back out there.”

The second time the carrier was hit Garms received flash burns on his face and had his head and eyes wrapped for four days in the base camp hospital, and then was transferred to a burn hospital in Japan for a month.

Enstad still farms outside of Walnut Grove. He and his wife had two children (their daughter passed away last August) and have two grandchildren.

Garms worked for Lambert’s Building Center for a number of years and then worked for the Postal Service in the processing Center in Mankato for nearly 30 years before retiring in 2010. He and his wife have two children and four grandchildren.

Before the two men left the restaurant on the day of their reunion, they had a message for each other.

“We said let’s not wait another 53 years to get together again,” laughed Enstad.

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