RURAL SOLON– On April 22, 1969, Ronald “Steve” Durr was standing in the back of an Air Force C-123 cargo plane as it was departing a Special Forces camp deep in the jungles of Vietnam. It was a mission the staff sergeant and his crew had flown many times as they brought in vital supplies to the Green Berets, landing just long enough for Durr, the crew’s loadmaster, to send the cargo down the plane’s loading ramp as it took off again. The area was known to be a hotbed of enemy activity, and on this day the Viet Cong made their presence known.
“I was standing by the troop door when I heard an explosion,” Durr said. “I looked down and there was a hole in the floor.” Anti-aircraft fire had struck the plane and the airman.
His left shoulder was bleeding. He felt lucky though. “A few inches over,” he said moving his hand over his heart, “and I probably wouldn’t be here.”
Back at their base near Pham Rang, the wound was treated. “It was just a flesh wound,” Durr said, but he still qualified for the Purple Heart, which is awarded to America’s combat wounded. Durr also was awarded the Air Medal, which is presented to members of the military who distinguish themselves either through a single act of heroism or through meritorious service.
With four years of service completed, Durr was discharged just a few weeks later with the Air Medal and a Purple Heart certificate, returning to Iowa, his wife Linda and very young son Dave, who was born while Durr was deployed.
“I came home to a whole new family,” Durr said. He worked nearly 30 years as an electrician at the ADM Corn Sweeteners plant in Cedar Rapids and was a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 405. With a second son, Eric and eventually, six grandkids, his Vietnam experience was pushed further to the back of his mind.
A diagnosis of lung cancer brought Vietnam and his injury back to the forefront for Durr. He was treated for his illness at the VA Medical Center in Iowa City, a facility with a staff he can’t praise enough, especially in light of various high-profile negative stories about the VA medical system in general.
“They deserve six-stars, the people of Iowa should be proud. I have never, ever came into contact with more caring, more professional people,” he said. Durr continues to undergo chemotherapy treatments in the wake of an early November 2013 brain tumor diagnosis with surgery just two weeks later.
Durr believes his cancer is a result of exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant sprayed by Air Force crews to kill off dense jungle foliage and deny cover to the VC and North Vietnamese Army. C-123 aircraft were commonly tasked with spraying missions in addition to troop carrying and cargo delivery.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, however, denies the connection based on studies conducted in 2011 and 2012, but has asked the Institute of Medicine to study possible health effects. Results are expected later this year, according to the department’s website.
While digging through his papers and keepsakes, looking for the various documents he needed for the VA, Durr realized he’d never received the Purple Heart medal. VA staff suggested he contact U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack, a Democrat representing Iowa’s Second Congressional District. Durr’s friend and Local 405 business manager Bill Hanes also “jumped right on it,” Durr said. Loebsack’s office worked with the Air Force and the National Personnel Records Center to secure the long overdue medal.
On Thursday, May 1, Durr received a phone call from Loebsack’s office.
“I didn’t expect it ‘til they called me and said they were going to present me with this medal Friday at 9:30. And I said, ‘Swell. Where?’ They said, ‘Your house,’” he laughed.
The next morning a platoon of local media descended upon Durr’s house between Shueyville and Solon. Loebsack and his assistants arrived with the medal Durr had waited 45 years to receive. The congressman also presented Durr with a U.S. flag that had flown over the Capitol and a certificate to accompany the medal.
“We don’t thank Vietnam vets enough,” Loebsack said as he shook Durr’s hand.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Durr replied. The former staff sergeant called the medal a keepsake to be passed on throughout his family. “It means a lot,” he said but added, “there are a lot of folks with these (Purple Hearts). I’m not special.”
Looking back on his service, Durr said he and his buddy had been talking to an Air Force recruiter when his draft notice arrived in the mail. “I decided I’d rather fly than walk, so I went to talk to the Air Force recruiter. I showed him the letter and he said, ‘I’ll take care of this, you report tomorrow.’” He enlisted in 1965 and following basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas and technical school Durr was assigned to McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington. While home on leave in 1966, he married his sweetheart since junior high, Linda, and she followed him to Washington.
When his unit, the 309th Air Commando Squadron, deployed to Vietnam, Linda returned home to Iowa. Upon his discharge, Linda and little Dave met him at the Cedar Rapids airport with a welcome home ceremony.
“I’ve had a pretty good life,” Durr said, “I can’t think of anything I’d change.”