A sister remembers her brother lost decades ago

2014-04-26T22:15:00Z 2014-04-26T22:22:07Z A sister remembers her brother lost decades agoJoyce Russell joyce.russell@nwi.com, (219) 762-1397, ext. 2222 nwitimes.com

When Gayanell Oldaker, her husband and infant daughter returned home from celebrating Mother's Day at her parents' home in 1968, the telephone rang.

The caller told her she needed to return to her parents' home.

When she arrived, Oldaker saw the large green car parked out front and knew it wasn't good news.

The family had just received word that her baby brother, Bruce Staehli, was missing in South Vietnam.

Forty-six years later, Oldaker, now a Pennsylvania resident, still wonders what happened to her brother. Was he taken a prisoner of war? Did he suffer? Is he, could he, still be alive? Why didn't anyone find him? 

"I think of him every day. I remember him every day," she said. Staehli was five years younger than Oldaker.

Staehli, then 19, was captured by enemy soldiers during the battle of Cam Vu on April 19, 1968. He was listed as MIA until June 1975, when the U.S. Department of Defense changed his status to presumed dead, body not recovered.

Oldaker said the family, which also included brother Bernie, the middle child, who now lives in Florida, and her parents, Neil and Goldeen, moved to Northwest Indiana from Wisconsin when Bruce was about 7. They'd come here for her father to take a job at U.S. Steel. They lived in a few towns in Lake County before settling in Merrillville.

'Adventuous one'

"Bruce was funny, and he was the adventurous one," Oldaker said remembering her youngest brother this week. "He was our junk man."

Oldaker said Bruce loved to scavenge, bringing junk home all the time, a "picker" before picking was cool.

Looking at his photograph, Oldaker said her brother's eyes were "full of love, joy and a whole lot of mischief."

She said she and Bruce had similar personalities, which often led to sibling sparring, the typical problems a younger brother would give to his big sister.

"He wanted to be a Marine," she said, but couldn't recall why, or why he made the decision to quit high school and join up.

After Bruce disappeared in the jungles of Vietnam, Oldaker said her family managed. The event neither brought them closer nor tore them apart.

Her father, she said, held it all in. She doesn't recall him crying or talking of Bruce much. She did remember her father leaving the room when Bruce's name were brought up.

It was, she said, just too much for him.

Her mother was most visibly affected. Oldaker said her mother would cry, but the two would also talk about Bruce and laugh about some of his childhood escapades.

Letter-writing campaign

Over the course of the seven years her son was MIA, Goldeen Staehli wrote letters to various U.S. and Marine officials, asking of her son's status and what the government was doing to find him.

"The most horrible part is to be Bruce's mother, know that he needs me and not be able to help him. ... We pray day and night that Bruce will return to us," Goldeen Staehli wrote in a July 1968 letter to Marine Col. W.C. Lemke.

In a 1969 letter to then-U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, she wrote, "People say, 'We know just what you are going through.' No they do not know. Only we the parents that have a son there know of the day to day anxiety. Why as I sit here to write this crying for my Darling Son, Can't there be something done?"

"If we have this status change made, I as Bruce's Mother would like very much to know just what the Marines and government plan to do about Bruce? Do they plan to search for Bruce or just forget Bruce and we his parents?" Goldeen Staehli wrote in a letter on March 17, 1975, to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. R.E. Cushman Jr.

Not knowing Staehli's fate then, as well as now, was most difficult for the family.

"It was harder because he was MIA, especially for my mother," she said.

Her parents moved to Minnesota three years after Bruce went MIA. Neil Staehli died in 2003. Goldeen Staehli followed in 2004.

While a marker was erected at Fort Snelling in Minnesota to commemorate her brother, it didn't bring closure.

Oldaker still wears POW/MIA bracelets bearing her brother's name, even though she admits she has lost hope of ever finding out what happened to Bruce or that his remains will be returned home to his family.

"I would wish that they would all be found, but it is not going to happen," she said of her brother and the other men who never came home. "Everybody needs to know where they are,"

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