Letters, packages from home impact Army soldier

David Boelkens holds one of his fainting goats at his Carroll County farm in northwest Illinois. The Army veteran was drafted in 1967 and was stationed for a year in Vietnam as a radio technician fixing radios and equipment for his fellow servicemen.

LANARK, Ill. — After completing his training to become a radio technician for the U.S. Army, David Boelkens had orders to go to Hawaii, but when he got to California his orders were changed to Vietnam.

“I never had a chance to go home before going to Vietnam,” Boelkens said. “So, I fell to my knees in prayer and I felt the Lord was going to be with me.”

Boelkens was in Vietnam for almost a year in 1968 and turned 21 while serving during the war.

“I would go out every day with the helicopters when they brought a hot meal usually at noon with the radios or equipment I had fixed,” he said. “I would fix what I could in the field and I took back what needed fixing — that was my life for 12 months.”

Most of the time, Boelkens said, he was just west of Saigon.

“We were in an old fish net factory probably about seven months and I got back to base camp about four times,” he said. “On the other side of the wall of the factory, you could hear the ladies replanting rice plants.”

It wasn’t always easy for the soldier to get the parts he needed make repairs on the radios.

“I had to depend on my folks to send me fishing string,” he said. “Also I was able to keep a lot of things going by finding items at the junkyard.”

One day, Boelkens saw a trailer.

“We were a light battalion so we moved a lot,” he said. “I told the sergeant about the trailer and someone went and got it with a truck.”

Boelkens constructed a building on the trailer.

“That’s where I ran my repair shop out of,” he said. “I probably flew out six times to set up new radio communication systems, otherwise we would pick up and go and we were at the Sand Hills for three months where it rained at 10:30 every morning.”

During his service, Boelkens wrote letters to classmates, family members and church members and they wrote letters to him.

“That’s what really kept your thoughts positive,” he said. “It meant a lot to me.”

During the Vietnam War, school kids were encouraged to write to servicemen.

“Four or five kids I never knew wrote me from different places, not just Lanark,” the Army veteran said.

When a letter arrived from home, Boelkens said, it was shared with the rest of the guys in the infantry.

“If you got food from home, you shared it with everybody,” he said. “My folks had their 25th wedding anniversary and they sent a piece of German chocolate cake — that was so good and I had to share it, that’s the way it was.”

When Boelkens came home for a leave he was supposed to finish his time of service at Fort Carson in Colorado.

“The mayor in Lanark knew about the early-out program for Vietnam vets if you were needed at home and you got the signatures of people like your pastor and parents,” he said. “I got out 90 days early and that was wonderful.”

But when Boelkens came back from the war zone, he was not settled.

“When you first get home, you warn everybody to not wake you up and you always sit way from the door so you can see the doors,” he said.

Boelkens worked on his family farm and took some college classes.

“I wasn’t ready for anything permanent so I went to Australia in 1971,” he said. “I needed that time and it’s too bad everybody doesn’t realize that coming back because it really made a difference for me.”

The Army veteran started in Sydney and got a job in a stainless steel factory where they made things like counter tops and washing machines. After he saved enough money to purchase a motorcycle, Boelkens started to travel.

“I had a friend I went to radio school with from Michigan and he wanted to ride around Australia so he made it half the way around and I made it all the way around,” he said. “I only had to send home for money one time because I couldn’t find work.”

Boelkens met a lot of nice people in Australia and he read a lot.

“I got my bearings back under me and I was thankful I was able to do that,” he said. “It was a little tough on my parents because they just got me back from Vietnam and I left again, but I knew it was something I had to do.”

After Boelkens started farming with his dad, he married his wife, Jan, and got the opportunity to farm by Chadwick, where they also raised hogs and fed cattle.

“In 1977, Jan’s dad built a new house so we started farming this 200 acres,” he said.

Now their son and three daughters are all involved with farmland ownership.

“Our son is calling the shots and our daughter, Myra, helps with the sheep and goats,” Boelkens said.

“It’s a family affair and in the summer we try to do things together like making apple cider,” he said. “We made 21 gallons, and it’s a neighborhood thing — we had about 14 people here.”

The family members farm a couple thousand acres where they grow corn, soybeans and a few acres of hay.

“We use to feed over 600 head of cattle and now we feed none,” Boelkens said. “The sheep and goats are our hobbies.”

The goats have been part of the operation for over 40 years.

“We started with milking goats when our twin daughters were in 4-H and we had maybe six at the most,” Boelkens said.

“Now we have fainting goats and for years we sold them as pets to petting zoos, but that got hard during COVID so now we raise them for meat and breeding stock.”

The Katahdin sheep have been part of the operation for the past nine years.

“It’s a registered herd and we sell breeding stock and now were at 24 head, but at one time we were up to 40,” Boelkens said. “One year we had 99 lambs and the next year we had 101 lambs, but we’ve cut back.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor