Highland News Leader

Honoring Our Veterans: Russ Rieke

U.S. Army Veteran Russ Rieke is no stranger to tragedies, grieving memories and hardships, but he retains a positive outlook by staying focused on aiding his brotherhood of fellow veterans.

Russ was born Sept. 7, 1946, in St. Louis to Neal and Grace Rieke; preceded in birth rank by brother, Neal. Jr., and a sister, the late Alice Rieke. He spent his toddler years in Baden, Missouri. When his father accepted a position with Sealtest, the family moved to Highland.

Russ noted his father was very strict and ensured all the children were well disciplined and taught to be courteous and to listen to the parents’ admonition to swallow their pride and be obedient. In other words, the kids got their share of spankings. However, Russ acknowledged since he was the baby of the family, he could do no wrong in his mother’s eyes.

As a youngster, Russ and his buddies hung out at a local junkyard filled with crashed vehicles and played in the wrecked cars, pretending they were driving and executing Army maneuvers. He attended St. Paul Catholic School until his freshman year, then began going to Highland High School until graduation in 1965.

Russ had received orders from the U.S. Army in 1964: but due to a severe automobile accident, which crushed his neck and back, he was given one year to recover; then he was inducted in the U.S. Army in June 1966 and sent to Leonard Wood, Missouri, to complete his basic training.

After basic, Russ spent the second eight weeks in Advanced Individual Training, AIT, to become an engineer. Home on leave for one week, Russ received strict orders to return: They were headed to Vietnam though they were not told where they were going. Flown to California, they sat in the aircraft on the runway for 10 hours, still uncertain of their destination.

Finally they were told those whose last names began with letters from the first half of the alphabet would be going to Vietnam; those whose last name began with letters from the second half of the alphabet were being sent to Korea, about five minutes from the Demilitarized Zone, DMZ.

There in Nopo-Dong, Korea, across the road from old Camp Peterson, Russ decided he wanted to attend demolition school wherein he and a team would search for and destroy Explosive Ordinance Devices, EODs. He trained and passed and was soon out in the fields clearing paths for the infantry with Bangalore torpedoes.

Russ diagnosed with HFRS

In December 1966, Russ, along with six other men, fell ill and were diagnosed with hemorrhagic fever. Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome, HFRS, is carried by rats and mites and widely distributed in Eastern Asia.

Symptoms usually develop within one to two weeks after exposure and include sudden intense headaches, back and abdominal pain, fever, chills, nausea and blurred vision. Individuals may have flushing of the face, inflammation or redness of the eyes, or a rash. Later symptoms include low blood pressure, acute shock, vascular leakage, and acute kidney failure which cause severe fluid overload.

Admitted to the Evacuation Hospital in Seoul, Russ and his comrades had intense pain, red spots on the skin, tongue and teeth, temporarily loss of sight and sense of balance, along with bouts of unconsciousness. Out of the seven, two passed away.

After a recovery taking two months, Russ was reassigned to being a mail clerk and escorting his commanding officer wherever he needed to go. Also during this time, Russ had been communicating via letters with a young lass from home, Lenora, nicknamed “Pootsie.” When his tour of duty was complete, Russ returned home and the couple’s relationship intensified. They married in December 1967.

Tragedy strikes

Two years after the nuptials, their family began growing quickly. In 1969, Russ Jr. was born and followed by Carrie Louise in 1970 and Kirby Allen in 1971. Two years after their last child was born, Russ and Lenora were driving to attend the 25th wedding anniversary of a relative on a Saturday in Highland.

The kiddos were at home with a babysitter, Russ and Lenora were at a stop sign; it was their turn to go. As they approached the intersection, a vehicle ran the stop sign and broad-sided their automobile, killing Lenora instantly. Russ was hospitalized, coded twice and did not regain consciousness until Wednesday. He was not even able to attend his wife’s funeral.

Left to raise three tiny toddlers alone, Russ said it was very difficult, but was blessed to have help from his parents and friends. The next year while making a truck delivery, Russ met his second wife, Nancy.

They began seeing each other and were married Aug. 24, 1974.

“She was very pretty. Nancy was 19 and I was 26, but I thought we could make it work,” recalled Russ. “And it became true. We’ve been married 45 years and she loved and raised my three children as though they were her own. She’s a really good woman and I love her so much.”

Ultimately, Russ and Nancy welcomed a daughter, April Ann, in March 1975.

Russ still suffers from complications of having had HFRS and has sought treatment and compensation from the Veterans Administration, but there seems to be a problem. Due to a clerical error all those years ago, there is nothing on Russ’ DD 214 to indicate he ever worked clearing the terrain of EODs. Additionally, Russ acknowledges he has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, as do most veterans because “you can’t unhear or unsee what you have heard or seen.”

Helping other veterans

Rather than allowing his infirmities to get the best of him, Russ instead spends his time helping other veterans through transportation to medical appointments and keeping the camaraderie between them alive and well.

In 1994, Russ was commissioned to go to Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea to search for prisoners of war, but found none. When Highland’s Veterans of Foreign Wars, VFW, Post 5694 burned down in 1992 and was rebuilt in 1993, Russ was regularly there cleaning the grounds, sweeping floors and doing general maintenance. Additionally, Russ, and his best friend, Lenny, orchestrated a memory board in the VFW which features more than 1,000 photographs from fellow veterans from the Metro East area.

He served as VFW post commander in 1974 and 1996, on the Madison City Council, the 12th District Commander and was the VFW State Commander of Illinois.

“We’re all here for the same thing,” said Russ. “We’re here to help and encourage each other. We all spell Veteran the same way.”