From historian to ambassador, this Vietnam-era Army veteran lives a meaningful life.
In our last Veteran’s Voices segment for the month, we introduce you to David Erbstoesser who joined the military out of respect for his dad and love for his country.
After earning a certificate in plumbing from North Dakota State College of Science., David Erbstoesser walked into the army recruitment center in Bismarck in 1962.
“I thought well you know, my dad, a World War II veteran – he was married when he went in, and it’s tough on married people, I thought you know, I don’t want to be in the service as a married person. It puts too much hardship on the wife, so I went into the recruiting offices and I signed off. And, I went home and told my dad I found a job and he says ok. And my mother did not quite like that but she accepted it,” explained Erbstoesser.
After training, 19-year-old Erbstoesser arrived at a cold and remote post just South of the Korean Demilitarized Zone in 1962.
“I worked on the missile site, I worked patrols, I was on guard duty on the perimeter fence, I was up on the tac site.”
While on patrol, Erbstoesser stepped into a hole and another soldier fell on him.
“My left ankle rolled and I couldn’t even get up, and I was told to get up in move and keep moving, and I told him ‘I can’t hardly walk.’ He said things I can’t tell you what he told me but he said get up and I was pushed for over a mile on it.”
Out of the desire to document his experience, Erbstoesser bought a camera in Seoul, South Korea.
His photographs would become important. Not only for recording history but also as proof later in life when Erbstoesser applied to the VA for treating his injuries from active duty…including a prosthetic for his ankle.
Recording history has become one of the most important elements of Erbstoesser’s life.
“About 30 years ago I started keeping histories of all the skirmishes in the wars from Civil War up to the War on Terror. Articles, pictures, and I put them in three-ring binders.”
Erbstoesser has amassed an archive of around 200 three-ring binders.. filled to the brim with history of soldiers and battles of every American war.
One of the areas he focuses on is recording the histories of individual North Dakotan soldiers.
“It’s about them that lost their lives, it’s not about me. It’s about these POW’s, the POW’s from North Korea, those over here that lost their lives in Vietnam and in WW2 and WW1, Korea, all the way up”
Erbstoesser has recorded the histories of these North Dakota’s soldiers .. including Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.
“I got all the POWs from North Dakota from WW2 up through Vietnam, and maybe Desert Storm. And, then I went around and found their gravesites and took pictures of their gravestones in North Dakota. And, that’s where this book comes in. This is Vietnam all killed in action from North Dakota. All of these, and this is a tracing of their name off the Vietnam War.”
Erbstoesser has preserved his dad’s Eisenhouser Jacket, medals of honor, and artifacts he gathered while battling Nazi Germany in WW2.
“I know what he went through and it was tough. The worst winter Germany had as that time.”
Hitler’s forces made their last assault on fatigued American troops in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium – during The Battle of the Bulge. The vicious fighting took 100-thousand U.S. soldiers’ lives..and Erbstoesser’s dad took shrapnel to the face.
“They were in a foxhole for three days. The one guy that was in there went back and got patched up, and he came back with his purple heart in his hand. And, he couldn’t go because it was dark. Moving around enemy territory with Germans all over wasn’t the thing, so he patched himself up.”
Because David’s dad patched up his own wound he did not receive a purple heart.
But.. Erbstoesser was determined to get one for his dad.
“I worked 18 years. I wrote congressmen, I wrote senators, I wrote the department of defense. I sent copies of everything I knew, I wrote letters and I got the same answer back, and back, and back. Thank him for his service. They found some day-orders maybe from one of the men who was with him, and it mentioned that he got slightly wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.”
And, on July 4th, 1998 Senator Kent Conrad presented Erbstoeser’s dad..Arnold.. with the purple heart on the state capital grounds. – a year before he passed away.
Erbstoesser has devoted much of his life to saving and preserving history for those who have risked and gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“It keeps me at peace, it does. I hope to pass this down to some archives or historian that will preserve this stuff that I have put together.”
And, as if all this wasn’t enough.. as a Disabled American Veteran, himself–Erbstoesser also helps other veterans get the services they need from the VA.
Erbstoesser is a life member of AmVets, VFW, American Legion, Vietnam Veterans of America, and has been happily married to his wife Lucy for 55 years.