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Barbara Bush served Hamburg vet cookies, John Wayne gave shout out

When Dave Trageser was a teenager, his father had a big job at Bethlehem Steel – assistant superintendent of the coke ovens in Lackawanna.

That meant Trageser's dad could afford some of the better things in life. For his son, it meant an education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. After graduation, he might have even landed a job that would put him on track to become an executive at Bethlehem, like his father and grandfather.

But another relative of sorts, Uncle Sam, was vying for his services when Trageser graduated Lehigh in June 1966. The Vietnam War was ramping up and huge numbers of young men were being drafted.

"I decided to enlist so that I could apply to become an officer, instead of being in the infantry," the 73-year-old Trageser said.

His strategy worked. The Army placed him in its Engineer Officer Candidate School at Fort Belvoir, Va. And that's when Trageser received an unexpected education involving the world of the truly privileged. In fact, the comfortable life his father had provided paled in comparison.

Trageser says a friendship with George Walker, another candidate at the Engineer School, opened the door to society's upper crust.

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Dave Trageser, 73

Hometown and residence: Hamburg

Branch: Army

Rank: 1st lieutenant

War zone: Vietnam War

Years of service: August 1966 – July 1969

Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, oak leaf cluster; Vietnam Campaign Medal and Army Commendation Medal

Specialty: Combat engineer

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Walker was a younger cousin to George H.W. Bush, who would go on to become president, and also a cousin to George W. Bush, who would follow in his father's footsteps to the White House.

But back then, the older Bush was a newly minted congressman from Texas. As for Trageser and Walker, they had hit it off when they realized they shared the same quirky sense of humor and tried their best to take nothing seriously.

It was during their time at Fort Belvoir that Walker invited Trageser to visit George and Barbara Bush, who lived in nearby Georgetown.

"Barbara Bush was home and she was gracious. She served us coffee and homemade peanut butter cookies. She was knitting as she chatted with us," Trageser recalled.

The visit, he said, took an unexpected turn when Barbara Bush suggested they meet her neighbor, Secretary of the Army Stanley R. Resor. He lived across the street.

"He had just returned home from Saturday morning tennis dressed in his Yale letterman's sweater, tall and unhurried. He asked us how officer school was going and I spoke up about our lack of sleep and the fact that we were hungry most of the time.

"I explained that the hunger wasn't caused by the amount of food we were served, but the lack of time to eat it," Trageser said, adding it felt good to voice his gripe to someone who might actually be able to do something about it.

As it turns out, Trageser said he did not notice any changes in the time allotted for chow.

After graduating Engineer School and receiving commissions as 2nd lieutenants, he and Walker were both accepted into Army Airborne School at Fort Benning, Ga., to learn how to become parachutists.

Vietnam veterans Dave Trageser, left, and George Walker – part of the famous Bush family – reconnected after the Vietnam War when Trageser and significant other Susanne Woyziechowicz visited Walker in Maryland.

But before heading further south, Walker invited Trageser to his family's waterfront mansion on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay.

"Later that weekend, George and I visited with some friends of his father a few miles down the highway. We wound up in a room with four or five middle-aged men who were expressing some political opinions and that somehow made me feel that their whole reason for being was to protect their status and wealth."

The conversation, Trageser said, provided deeper insights into the world of the privileged and it made him feel "uncomfortable and claustrophobic."

Soon after arriving at Fort Benning, his journey offered an unexpected surprise as he and Walker stepped out of the mess hall.

"We looked across the parking lot and there was John Wayne with our commanding officer. He looked over and gave us a booming, resonant greeting, 'Airborne!'

"We enthusiastically saluted him and the colonel as we shouted the customary response, 'All the way, sir!' We had known he was at the base to film the movie 'The Green Berets,' so we were not completely surprised, just a little starstruck."

Upon completing jump school, Trageser and Walker were assigned to different airborne division, the 101st and 82nd, respectively. Trageser arrived in Vietnam just before the start of the enemy's surprise Tet Offensive in January 1968.

Unlike his education into the privileged and his brush with one of Hollywood's greatest stars, Trageser was now learning about the horrors of war while, back home, his father had advanced to coke oven superintendent at Bethlehem Steel's Indiana plant.

In a Feb. 2, 1968, letter to his parents, he told of how the enemy was hammering away at his outfit:

"The attack focused on the airbase runways about a mile from our location. We have our hooch, a plywood and corrugated metal-roofed building sandbagged, and we just rolled on the floor and pulled mattresses over us.

"I must have been scared and I wonder if it was after this night that I got in the habit of polishing off a six-pack of beer before hitting the sack ... "

In May 1969, just before Trageser was to return home, he found out Walker was stationed in the north near Quang Tri.

"I caught a Jeep ride up there to visit him. The terrain got bleaker and bleaker, with less and less vegetation as we drove towards North Vietnam on Highway One."

When Trageser arrived, he encountered a different George Walker. The humor was gone.

"That visit was discomforting to me," he said. "George was holed up in a heavily sandbagged bunker in a bombed-out area. He seemed stressed, harried and serious and not very amenable to joking around."

Years later in reflecting on that brief visit, Trageser said he came to realize that his buddy had encountered a lot more action with the enemy than he had. When Trageser returned to the United States after his 18-month tour, he said he sought a simple life and became a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.

He delivered mail in Missoula, Mont., and Lawrence, Mass., before coming full circle and returning to Hamburg and delivering mail here. Along the way, he married and had a son.

About eight years ago, Trageser said he decided to try and reconnect with Walker.

"It took awhile but I was able to locate George through an internet search," he said of how the friendship rekindled.

Some five years ago, Trageser and his significant other, Susanne Woyziechowicz, visited Walker, who had retired from government work and was living in Maryland.

To his relief, Trageser discovered that the war had not permanently robbed his buddy of his quirky sense of humor and they were soon getting along like old times.

And the future looks good for these two old war buddies.

"We're hoping to get together again soon," Trageser said.

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