For the better part of 50 years, Don Stevens has done his best to avoid thinking about his combat service in Vietnam. He remembers the guys he served with, the places he was stationed, the serious injuries he suffered on the frontlines, even the fella who paid him a visit – his name was Frank – when he was in the hospital in Da Nang. Don just found it easier to manage daily life by living in the present.
“A lot of us suppressed our feelings of the war,” Don says. “When we came home, we weren’t welcomed. Nobody cared about us. It was tough. So, you just tried to forget everything as soon as you possibly could.”
Upon his discharge from the service, Don settled in Sioux City where he served for many years as postmaster.
Don would visit with area veterans from time-to-time to catch up, but for the most part, his service remained in his past—until he reunited with a familiar face from five decades ago.
On the Mend
Entering the new year, Don was feeling better than ever. At 74-years-old, he had recently lost some weight, and was even told by his cardiologist that he had never looked better. Just a month after that appointment, Don began to experience shortness of breath and pain in his chest. Upon examination, Don had several serious arterial blockages and required triple bypass surgery.
The surgery was performed at UnityPoint Health - St. Luke’s and, despite suffering a heart attack during the procedure, Don came out like a champ. Even so, as he began cardiac rehabilitation at UnityPoint Health - St. Luke’s to build back his strength, he was struggling emotionally.
“I was so depressed that I had to have all this done,” Don says. “I mean, I had just been to the doctor and he was happy that I had lost weight, my cholesterol was great, everything. I just wondered why it had happened. But I figured there had to be a reason.”
In his fifth week of cardiac rehab that reason came into focus while Don toiled away on the exercise bike.
“I was just doing my work and making small talk with the guy next to me,” Don says. “Somehow, I worked in that I used to work at the post office, and he asked me if I was Don Stevens. Honestly, I thought, ‘Uh oh. What did I do to anger this guy 20 years ago that he is still mad at me today’?!”
It was nothing like that. The man next to him on the bike knew Don from before his service at the post office. That man was Frank Moss - the soldier who had visited Don 51 years prior at a hospital in Vietnam.
“We were just yakking, talking about guys that we both knew,” Frank recalls of the conversation that brought them together. “He eventually mentioned that his last name was Stevens and I asked if he was the old postmaster. When he said he was, I knew it was him. I told him that I had visited him back when he was in Da Nang.”
The conversation took the two back to their early years. Don landed in the hospital in late May of 1970 after an explosion blew out his eardrums and resulted in several other wounds. Back in Sioux City at the time, Frank’s wife worked with Don’s mother. Don’s mother was struggling to get information on his condition so she asked Frank’s wife to write Frank to ask if he could go to the hospital to visit Don.
“I got a letter from my wife letting me know that Don’s mother hoped that I could go see him,” Frank recalls. “The hospital was just down the road from where I was, and it was somebody from home, so it was something I wanted to do.”
A Timely Lift
That hospital visit back in 1970 gave Don a lift. And reconnecting in 2021 did the same.
“If you have faith, you believe that things happen for a reason,” Don says. “In the hospital in Da Nang I was in an awful place and here comes this visitor from home and it lifted me up. Again, I’m depressed after having this heart attack and heart surgery, and Frank shows up again. I have had two major traumatic events in my life and Frank Moss has been there for me at both of them. Whether you believe in God or not, things like that don’t just happen by coincidence.”
Frank also received a lift from reconnecting with his brother-in-arms from the war.
“In that moment we were taken back 50 years,” Frank says. Frank has had a series of cardiac issues over more than a decade and has been in cardiac rehab on and off since 2009. “Here we were doing therapy together and again dealing with the same types of issues. It has been good for both of us. We feel like we have a brother in rehab and we have been able to do things outside of rehab as well.”
In addition to grabbing coffee on a regular basis, Don and Frank have made it a point to visit the American Legion more regularly. Connecting with other veterans now five decades removed from the war has helped them deal with memories they avoided for years.
“Those who were in combat, for so many years, didn’t want to talk about it,” Don says. “The people who weren’t there didn’t want to hear the story. But to have somebody like Frank come back into my life, someone who has experienced the same things I have, those memories come back. And now it’s not so painful to share, because I am sharing with someone who was right there with me.”
That brotherhood has also carried over to cardiac rehab.
“To be able to be at rehab with someone you know who is also trying to heal is helpful,” Don says. “Now we are healing our bodies and in a lot of respects our minds. I hope that more veterans see our story and reach out to find a fellow vet who has been there. There are a lot of guys out there who haven’t had a chance to talk about it. We hope our story opens a door for those guys.”