Story in a box

Photos, letters, an 8-track tape and other items tell the wartime story of Jack Kratzer. A box full of Kratzer's past was found in a Summerville attic and returned to its rightful owner.

Wade Spees

The box was a time capsule from an unmistakable era: browning photos of downtown Saigon, a simple service medal, a dozen letters home that describe the hell -- and the monotony -- of war.

Fred Lincoln found all this stuff in his Summerville attic when he was having some work done on his furnace last week. He wasn't sure what to do, so he called his cousin Chris Brunetti, who is active-duty Army.

Brunetti dug through the box -- past the Elton John 8-track tape, the Veterans Administration brochure on Agent Orange, the pictures of guys hanging out in the tent barracks -- and quickly pieced together the story of Jack Kratzer.

Kratzer had been sent to Vietnam when he was 19, stationed just outside Saigon with his transport battalion. He spent much of his time writing home to his wife; his brother Joseph, who was stationed in Korea; and his friend

Rick, who was somewhere else in-country. These soldiers swapped stories of hurry-up-and-wait, made jokes about the Army, detailed the death of two local kids who inadvertently stepped on a mine probably meant for U.S. soldiers. Letters back to the world took a while to get through. Kratzer's daughter was more than a week old before he learned, via the Red Cross, that she'd been born.

Within a day, Brunetti had learned everything about Kratzer's story except his ending. He set out to find the soldier's family.

"His military service is in a box, and it's been forgotten," Brunetti said. "I can't stand by and let that happen."

A lot of memories

They found Jack's brother Jim at his North Charleston business, Ashley Phosphate Automotive & Truck Repair. Kratzer did not know exactly what to make of this convoy of folks -- Brunetti, Lincoln, their wives and two boxes of stuff -- but he recognized some of the memorabilia immediately.

There was his mother's house, circa 1970, in one photo. He identified his brother's friend, Rick, in another. And then he saw a picture of his brother Joseph, in his service uniform.

"This is crazy," Jim Kratzer said.

Kratzer had been close to following in his brothers' footsteps; the war ended just before he was scheduled for his physical. But all of his brother's forgotten belongings brought back memories -- some happy, others painful.

Finally, Brunetti asked the question he had to have answered: What happened to Jack?

"Jack lives in Cottageville," Jim said.

After the suicide runs

"I'm not dead," Jack Kratzer laughs as he answers the phone.

He explains that he moved more than three years ago, and thought all that stuff was in his garage. He's grateful to get it back because he's promised it to his kids, and it holds a lot of memories.

There is, of course, a lot more to the story than can be gleaned from old pictures. Kratzer was stationed in Cat Lai, at a port where supplies and ammunition were unloaded for troops and boated in-country to Army camps. On his first day there, a local brought a bleeding 10-year-old girl to the gate. She had been stabbed in the head -- by her father. For the unforgiveable sin of carrying soap into the house.

Kratzer spent his nights watching helicopters shooting across the river, and spent his days spraying Agent Orange along the riverbanks (they had to keep the shore clear so snipers could not hide in the brush and pick them off as they boated supplies upriver).

For more than 11 months, Kratzer had to do the 6 a.m. suicide run. He and two other guys would get in a Jeep, drive to the main highway 15 miles away, and come back. If they made it without getting shot, the road was declared open. Hell of a way to start the day.

To this day, it takes little for Jack to be drawn back there: a car backfires, a song from 1969 comes on the radio, a helicopter flies overhead. Six doctors have diagnosed Jack Kratzer with post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a common story, the sad legacy of an ugly war.

Brunetti worried that Kratzer's wartime experiences had been forgotten.

Jack should be so lucky.

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or bhicks@postandcourier.com.