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Bob Rands sits at his desk located in Chu Lai, Vietnam in 1966 during the war. Rands, a member of the U.S. Navy Seabees, originally worked in the office because he was one of the only ones there who could type. Later on, he helped build a runway used by the U.S. military. The photos is one of the only images of Rands’ time in the service.

When Bob Rands died in 2020, his funeral was small. 

Only 10 people — including the funeral celebrants — could accompany Bob’s body to its final resting place at the Rock Island Arsenal. Social distancing protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic greatly limited the number of people allowed. 

Those rules also meant no public funeral could be held for the man who was always willing to lend a helping hand to neighbors in need. 

Instead, in October, people across the county will be able to honor the man who built things, including a runway in Chu Lai during the Vietnam War, the DeWitt Area Veterans Memorial and houses in Mississippi following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. 

Bob will be recognized by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and its In Memory program Oct. 16. The program honors Vietnam War veterans whose “lives were cut short as a result of their service after they returned home from Vietnam.”

Bob’s family — including ex-wife and best friend Barb Rands and daughter Melissa Rands and her family — will travel to Washington D.C. to witness the ceremony. Those who wish to watch but cannot attend can view via a livestream at facebook.com/VietnamVeteransMemorialFund beginning at 9 a.m. Oct. 16. 

Bob is one of four Iowans included in this year’s ceremony, and he is one of 400 veterans whose names will be immortalized for their service. The In Memory Honor Roll includes profiles of all the service members honored over the years. Friends, family and others can express sympathy, submit memories, and learn about each individual. 

Overseas

Working for Rittmer, Inc. after high school, Bob knew he wouldn’t have much to do in the winter, so he went to California looking for something to do. As the Vietnam War was in its infancy, Bob figured he would need to make a decision. 

“He went to the enlistment office … and happened to see the Navy Construction Battalion (also known as Seabees),” Barb said. “When he inquired about what that was, he knew that was what he wanted to do because he worked construction with Rittmers already.”

As luck would have it, the Seabee base was just down the road at Port Hueneme. It was then that Bob became a member of the battalion. 

“He enlisted, and went to basic training in Chicago,” Barb said. “We married that summer, and he then went to school at Hueneme, and we were there for six months.” 

A member of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (MCB) 40, Bob was deployed to Chu Lai in South Vietnam where he was tasked with building a runway for the base there that was used by both the Marines and Army during the Vietnam War. 

“I flew in a C-130 from (a Seabee base in) Davisville, Rhode Island, loaded down with cargo, and we were in jump seats,” Bob said in an interview in 2014. “It was a four-engine prop-driven plane, and we went from Rhode Island, to the east coast, to Hawaii, to Guam, to Okinawa, to the Philippines, to Japan (and) then to Vietnam. When they dropped the back door of the C-130 ... the heat was intense. Heat was the first thing (I remember).”

For the first couple weeks on the base, Bob and his peers slept in tents. They soon moved to primitive shelters with metal roofs protected by mortar pits. 

In addition to his construction duties, Bob was trained as a radio operator and was in charge of manning a radio in the instance of an invasion or attack. 

“We had concertina wire around our camp, five rolls of razor wire and what we called tanglefoot,” Bob said in 2014. “It was fence posts with the wire zig-zagged around between the fence posts. It was my job to jump down into the bunker when the sirens went off and man the radio for the company.”

Eventually, the runway was completed. A crosswind runway, it shot planes into the air over the China Sea via a catapult, a key implement during monsoon season. 

Bob said soldiers would venture into the village to purchase souvenirs from local artisans, including Ho Chi Minh sandals, footwear made with recycled tires and frequently used by Viet Cong soldiers. 

Bob said he stopped smoking and drinking while deployed, and remembered helping start a toys-for-tots program in 1966. 

“For Christmas we would get toys from the states and hand them out to the village children,” he said in 2014. “We also had a time around Christmas when we brought the village children into the camp and fed them cake and ice cream. The children didn’t know what the ice cream was until some of the elders explained what it was and that it was ok to eat. The villagers were good and fun to be around.”

Return to the mainland

In 1967, Bob came home to the U.S. There was no reception. 

“When I met him in Chicago, he just wore civilian clothes off the plane,” Barb said. “He didn’t wear a uniform. He didn’t want to be rejected.”

American citizen opposition to the Vietnam War was at a fever pitch in 1967. That animosity toward soldiers and the war effort hadn’t derailed Bob from enlisting. His dad and uncles were veterans. 

“Whether he thought (the war) was right or not, honestly, I do not know how he felt about that,” Barb said. “Did he think we should be there? I have a feeling he did not. We really just didn’t discuss it. But he would have never tried to avoid (the war).”

And he didn’t. 

He was proud of the work he’d done, especially later in life, Barb said. 

“Many times, Seabees were deployed with Marines and would do any building that needed to be done,” Barb said. “To avoid going to war was not something Bob would have ever done.” 

With the overseas tour done, Bob and Barb went to Rhode Island and lived there through the completion of the end of Bob’s active duty. 

The couple moved back to DeWitt and started a life. Barb worked in the financial field and Bob went to college on the GI Bill before getting a job at Clinton Corn (currently ADM), a company from which he retired. 

For most of that time — and for the majority of his life — Bob was reluctant to talk about his service time in great detail, except perhaps with fellow servicemen. 

“And really, the first years of our marriage, we didn’t talk about it a lot,” Barb said. “I knew that he didn’t like the adverse reactions.”

The two continued to build their life. They had two kids — Melissa and (the late) Scott — and became involved in activities around town. Bob continued his duty for the reserves that included one weekend per month away from home for training. 

Bob was a black belt in martial arts and worked as a Taekwondo instructor. He served as a reserve DeWitt police officer and enjoyed volunteering around town. 

That drive to serve, Barb said, was tried-and-true. 

Activism

As the kids grew up and Bob retired from ADM, his volunteerism hit overdrive. 

In addition to activities around DeWitt, Bob volunteered with the United Service Organization at the Rock Island Arsenal. His most time-consuming endeavor, though, involved spending time in the bayou. 

After Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast in 2006, Bob joined up with Park View Lutheran Church to travel to Gulfport, Mississippi, to help rebuild and replace damaged homes. That, Barb said, was one of his most intense passions. Overall, Bob took four or five trips to the south for that endeavor, Barb said. 

A mission closer to home was the formation of the DeWitt Area Veterans Memorial near Elmwood Cemetery. 

Bob and Mike Osmun had for years envisioned a place in DeWitt where veterans could be honored. So, they got it done. Bob used his construction knowledge to design it. 

“When I first came up with the thought of doing the memorial, Bob was one of the first people I talked to about doing it,” said Osmun, DeWitt’s American Legion post commander and retired DeWitt police officer. The two rode together for years when Bob was a reserve officer.

“He was very proud of it,” Melissa said. And that helped (him) a lot. He never spoke about it explicitly, but I could tell it was cathartic for him ... it was an outward expression of (his) identity and his service.”

Saying goodbye

It was blood clots that eventually slowed Bob down.

An avid walker, one day Bob complained of a sore leg. Barb insisted he see a doctor. After hemming and hawing, Bob agreed. 

Doctors recommended Barb to take Bob to the hospital, so she did. 

“He walked in, and that’s the last I saw of him,” Barb said. “I was not allowed to go in because of COVID. That’s tough; it really hurt.”

Bob died on May 11, 2020, at 77 years of age. He had suffered a stroke while in the hospital. 

Shortly thereafter, Osmun and the American Legion presented colors and performed a proper sendoff at the memorial Bob helped build. COVID limited the attendees, but flags along the road at Elmwood dominated the backdrop, and Bob’s body — along with his family — were escorted from DeWitt to the Rock Island National Cemetery, where he is interred. 

And in October, his name will be added to the immortal list of thousands of others who served in the Vietnam War and have since passed away. 

“My dad was very proud of his military service, but it wasn’t a source of pride for many years,” Melissa said. “Time helps.”

And, for a man like Bob, staying busy working on projects that helped others perhaps furthered that healing. 

“He was proud,” Barb said. “He answered the call and he fulfilled the call.”