For all of his adult life, Jim Gaertner has been in service to others as a member of the United States Army, the Sedalia Police Department and now as an advocate for the brothers and sisters in arms he fought with who served before, during and after his military service.
“I don’t regret any of my military service,” Gaertner said. “It was the right thing to do; that’s why I volunteered both times.
“The first time I had no idea what I was in for,” Gaertner added. “The second time I knew exactly what I was doing and I believed in the ideals we were fighting for.”
Gaertner volunteered in 1969 for the Army when he was 17 years old. It was the height of the Vietnam War and Gaertner said his parents were less than happy with him at the time.
“There was a long line of military tradition and service on my mother’s side,” Gaertner said. “She was more understanding of my decision but neither was pleased.
“To this day I am convinced that the reason I made it through two tours was by my faith in Christ and the prayers of a whole bunch of good Christians back home,” he added.
Not only did Gaertner rely on his friends and family back home, but he also came to rely on the new friends and family he found while in the service, especially the bond he formed with a fellow soldier who became his best friend, Mike Waters.
“Mike was from Millan, Georgia, a small town about the size of La Monte,” Gaertner said. “He didn’t become simply my best friend, but he was everyone’s.”
Gaertner described Waters a small town boy who everyone in his hometown knew and respected.
“He was so well thought of,” Gaertner said. “I truly believe he would have done anything for anyone.”
In many respects, Waters did just that.
It was the early morning of June 30, 1970, near the Cambodian border, when a “terrible accident” of friendly fire took Water’s life.
Gaertner was the last person who spoke to Waters the night before the two men went to sleep on their air mattresses in the middle of the jungle.
“There was a lot of confusion and everything was so intense,” Gaertner remembered. “In the service, there is an emphasis on discipline; mistakes were made.
“But all decisions have consequences,” he added. “That same night there was another fatality and 27 more men were wounded.”
Gaertner, who was lying 20 meters from Waters, said the impact from the rounds that were fired was so strong that it completely blew the air mattress from underneath him.
“I would like to think that he didn’t suffer,” Gaertner said. “I think of him every day and every night but I made a promise to him to keep his name and memory alive.
“It took me 45 years to get to his grave, but this September I did,” Gaertner said quietly. “I had to pay my respects in person.”
Gaertner struggles every day with survivor’s guilt, saying he thinks of all of those who didn’t make it home from combat.
“I think so often about what might have been,” Gaertner added. “I have made it my vow not to let them be forgotten, and I have tried to live my life in a fashion they would be proud of.”
Waters was 20 years old when he lost his life. Had he lived, he would be 66 years old.
It was a year and a half later when Gaertner received an honorable discharge from the service, but not before returning to the Pacific battlefield for a second tour.
“I had to find a way to reconcile and accept the fact that good people may lose their life in this endeavor,” Gaertner said. “I also believe that once I reconciled myself to the fact that I could die, I could concentrate on being a good soldier.
“I couldn’t spend a year fretting about getting killed,” he added. “There is a sense of peace with potential death and I think that is true in every war ever fought.”
Gaertner said when he returned home “as corny as it sounds” the first thing he did was get down on his hands and knees and he kissed the ground.
He also commented that he heard stories and saw protesters firsthand when he returned home, but that he did not experience a negative reception upon his return to Sedalia.
“Once I got back home I was unemployed for a while,” Gaertner said. “But, I knew I couldn’t do that for very long.
“I had returned to a job that I started working at when I was 13 and stayed at until I joined the Army. My employer was a good Christian man but he treated me like I was still 13. I know he didn’t do it out of malice, it was just how he saw me, but after Vietnam I just couldn’t handle that.”
Two months after leaving his job, Gaertner accepted an opening with the Sedalia Police Department where he devoted 28 years of his life serving as a law enforcement officer, including five years as commander of the department.
He retired in 2005 and since then has given his time to help other veterans who are in need of help with either physical or emotional needs.
“I want the veterans of this area and this country to know that help is available to them,” Gaertner said. “Many veterans have no idea what is available.
“I think for so many of us, we are reluctant to talk about our experiences, especially those with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) because of the unfair stigma associated with it,” he added. “I can understand and relate to them because I have struggled with PTSD since my return home.”
Gaertner said he now realizes he suffered with the condition for years, not understanding what it was at the time.
Gartner credits his wife of 43 years, Micki, who he describes as his rock, with helping him seek the treatment and help he needed.
He said he often was unable to sleep because of the multiple nightmares he suffered.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night shaking,” Gardner said. “Micki was always there to listen to me and tell me it would be alright; eventually I listened to her and got the help I needed.
“PTSD isn’t simply something combat veterans face; it is something that anyone who has suffered from a traumatic incident can experience,” he said.
Gaertner said he hopes both veterans and all citizens realize that by seeking help those suffering are not seeking a government handout, rather it is something that is owed to the veterans of America for their service.
“I think a question we should all be asking,” Gardner said, “Is not, ‘Why are there so many who are suffering from this?’ but rather, ‘Why aren’t there more?
“The situation is especially true for older retired veterans who have more time on their hands,” Gardner said. “Because they are no longer working they have more of their own time and that is when their mind tends to wander to places they don’t want to go.”
To help many veterans in their healing process, Gaertner serves as the vice president of the Honor Flight Program in Pettis County. He has been a member of the board since 2008.
“We’ve taken 19 flights so far,” Gaertner said. “They are a labor of love.
“We take 40 vets on each flight from World War II, Korea and Vietnam and 18 escorts who help with any needs (the veterans) may have. People always ask what was the best flight, we always tell them that is the one we just finished.”
Gaertner commented there is always a great deal of emotion on the flights, especially when the veterans visit the Vietnam War Memorial and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, saying they were both popular and sobering.
Gaertner recommends any veteran who is seeking help to contact the VA Hospital in Columbia.
“The help is not just for combat veterans,” Gaertner said. “There should be no stigma or shame and this is not a government handout.
“The citizens of this country owe this to our veterans for their service.”
Hope Lecchi can be reached at 660-826-1000 ext. 1484