Roger Ralston knew as he plucked the flak jacket from South Vietnam weeds that the jacket belonged to Pfc. Bruce Staehli.

Inside the pocket was a camera.

"Staehli always carried a little Kodak camera in his pocket," said Ralston, a member of the Lima Co., 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines.

It was April 1968.

One Marine found Staehli's pack. Another found his boots, shoelaces removed, likely by his captors to secure his hands. Two weeks later, almost 2 miles to the north, Staehli's dog tags were found by yet another group of Marines.

That was the last known location of Bruce Wayne Staehli, a 19-year-old from Merrillville, who joined the U.S. Marines about six months before he should have graduated from Merrillville High School.

Staehli remained classified as Missing in Action until June 22, 1975. His status changed to presumed dead, body not found. He joined the ranks of some 1,600 service personnel who fought in Vietnam, but whose remains have never been returned.

Forty-six years later, after Staehli went MIA on April 30, 1968, men he served with, men he went to school with and men he didn't even know wanted to share his story so he wouldn't be forgotten.

From the neighborhood

John Essex and Roy Foreman went to high school with Staehli.

Essex, of Crown Point, himself a U.S. Army veteran wounded in Vietnam, lived on the next block in Forrest Hills subdivision.

"We had some classes together. We rode the bus together. He was pretty quiet," Essex said, adding the two weren't friends.

Foreman, of Merrillville, agreed that Staehli, who was born in Wisconsin, was quiet and not particularly active in school.

Staehli was to graduate with the class of 1967, but records from the high school indicate he withdrew from school after 36 days into his senior year --  the fall of 1966. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps on Dec. 6, 1966.

The two men haven't forgotten him. Both active in the Merrillville Historical Society, they put together a poster with Staehli's high school picture and placed it in the museum's military room.

Essex presented a flag to Merrillville High School on Staehli's behalf in the 1980s. He wears his POW/MIA bracelet and placed two bricks with Staehli's name in a local cemetery.

"We went to school together, in the same class. We grew up in the same neighborhood. I didn't care even if he was in the Marines and I was in the Army. I wanted to remember him," Essex said.

So do the men of Lima Co.

Whiting resident Paul Banik looked at the names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall at Stoney Run Park near Leroy recently.

"I just wish his name wasn't up there. I just wish all their names weren't up there," Banik said.

He came to the wall to talk about Staehli in particular.

Banik didn't know Staehli, but he knew his story.

They both served in Vietnam with Lima Co., 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines.

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Banik came home. Staehli did not.

They still remember

"This isn't about me. This is about Bruce, a kid who used to walk around," Banik said.

"It is important to us because he was one of us," said Banik, who joined Lima Co. after Staehli went MIA. 

It was then he heard about Staehli. The men, including Ralston and Tom Scheib, Lima Co.'s commander, told him about Staehli. They and others still recount during reunions the day Staehli was taken captive.

"I got to know him a little bit when we were in a place called the Rockpile," Scheib said about Staehli. "He was a typical Marine, nice easy-going guy."

The Rockpile is an outcropping near the former South Vietnamese DMZ. It was used by both the Army and Marines as an observation point and artillery base from 1966 to 1968.

Scheib, who retired from the Marines after 23 years and now lives in Hernando Beach, Fla., can recount April 30, 1968, and the Battle of Cam Vu nearly moment by moment.

Scheib said the company was supposed to go on another mission that day, but were detoured. He knew it would be a fierce battle, he said, because the first helicopter that landed to take the troops into battle had five chaplains aboard.

Lima Co. and other Marine units were ambushed by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. They were bombarded with mortars, small arms fire and automatic weapons. Napalm was dropped so close, Scheib said, it burned some of his own men.

"We held our own with them, eyeball to eyeball, rifle to rifle," said Scheib, adding the enemy circled U.S. troops in the fight that lasted more than an hour.

A total of 46 Marines, about 20 from Lima Co., died in the Battle of Cam Vu, just outside Dong Ha, then the northern most town in South Vietnam.

Staehli, along with 17 others, didn't return that night to the perimeter. The next morning, the other 17 were found, and they learned Staehli was missing.

Scheib, who was wounded, was airlifted that morning.

Staehli had been spotted by a Marine at one point who reported he believed Staehli had been wounded before disappearing back into the shoulder-high grasses in the area. Whether Staehli was wounded in the battle was never confirmed.

"He should have zigged when he zagged," said Ralston, adding that how Staehli was captured and by whom is only supposition.

All they know, both Ralston and Scheib said, is that Staehli was never found.

"There ain't a day that goes by that you don't think about it," Scheib said.

"When you leave there, you leave all these guys behind and you never know what happened to them," Ralston said. He is now a businessman living outside Atlanta, Ga.

For both Ralston and Scheib, Staehli's capture haunted them. A Marine motto is to never leave a man behind, they said, and Staehli was left behind.

"We had a job to do, we tried to do. In Staehli's case, we failed. We didn't bring him home," Scheib said. "We had a responsibility to bring him home one way or another. We failed him and his mother and his father. It's the one thing that probably haunts me the most."

"We did not leave our people back," Banik said. "Bruce ... we didn't bring back and it is a sore spot to us. His family deserved to know what happened. Bruce deserves to know what happened. It is important to us (telling Bruce's story), because he was one of us."

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.