Navy vets, twin sisters from Cedar Rapids experience 'awesome' honor

During the Vietnam era, they served stateside - but on opposite coasts

CEDAR RAPIDS — Pam Jurgemeyer and Paula Steenhoek are twin sisters, but Jurgemeyer won’t hesitate to point out she was born first, 11 minutes earlier.

“I guess I got pushy,” Steenhoek said.

They both live in Cedar Rapids and are 68 now, “and proud of every gray hair we have,” Steenhoek said.

 

 

But with a bit of prompting, they’ll share stories of their days in the Navy, serving stateside during the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. They participated in a recent Eastern Iowa Honor Flight, joining about 100 other veterans on Oct. 15 to tour memorials in the nation’s capitol dedicated to sacrifices of members of the armed services.

All of those memorials hold deep meaning for the sisters, Steenhoek said. Military service was part of their family. Their father was also in the Navy and served in the Atlantic theater during World War II. Their brother joined the Army and was stationed Germany. Jurgemeyer’s uncle-in-law, Jerry Bunge, served in Vietnam and was also on the Honor Flight with them. Her son-in-law and two stepchildren also served.

“When we were young, our dad would always ask, ‘What are you going to do when you get out of high school?’ I always said I wanted to join the Navy,” Steenhoek said.

This was actually Steenhoek’s second time on the Honor Flight. She participated four years ago as a volunteer, helping a Korean War veteran who was in a wheelchair. She said watching the World War II veterans see the memorials was almost as powerful as seeing the memorials themselves.

“That was huge,” she said. “It was awesome.”

Bruce Adams, public relations and media coordinator for Eastern Iowa Honor Flight, said the expereince provides something special for veterans.

“It’s different, we’ve found, than people just going to Washington, D.C., on their own or with their family,” he said. “They’re actually spending the day with other veterans. They seem very energized the whole day.”

Since 2009, more than 3,300 veterans have gone on Eastern Iowa Honor Flights, which go four times a year, Adams said. Over 1,000 veterans remain on a waiting list, and the average wait time to get on a flight is two to two-and-a-half years. Priority is given to World War II veterans, then Korean War and then Vietnam-era veterans, and those with medical concerns can be moved up the list.

Currently, the majority of veterans going on the flights served during Vietnam. Adams said very few of them are women.

Recognition welcome

While in Washington, Jurgemeyer left a $25 silver coin commemorating the Vietnam War at the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which includes a statue of a nurse holding a wounded soldier. Eight military women died in Vietnam, and their names are listed on the wall. Seeing them recognized meant a lot, Jurgemeyer said.

“The whole day was really emotional for me,” she said. “Even though I was not a field medic, I took care of their family. Their moms and their wives and their children. Some of them you really get close to.”

 

She said she was glad women’s contributions were being acknowledged with a memorial. She’s also glad Vietnam-era veterans are getting recognition.

“When we got to the D.C. airport, there was a unit of military personnel there and others, welcoming us and thanking us for our service. That was awesome. We were getting hugs,” she said. “And all the people at the Cedar Rapids airport when we got back. ... I tried to shake hands and acknowledge everybody. It was an exciting day.”

On the plane, they did a “mail call,” passing out letters of appreciation to the veterans.

“I didn’t experience this because I never went over there (to Vietnam). But the way those veterans were treated, this is 50 years too late. But it’s nice they’re getting it now,” she said.

Unique challenges

Steenhoek said she always knew she wanted to serve. Soon after graduating from high school, she talked to a Navy recruiter. Her mother had to sign off on her joining, even though she was older than 18.

 

“Things were different for girls,” she said.

Jurgemeyer initially didn’t plan to follow her sister. She wanted to join her mother working at what is now Collins Aerospace, and that’s what she did, working there for seven months before they were both laid off. She enlisted in the Navy in 1972.

Steenhoek was stationed in Pensacola, Fla., where she helped with supplies and was a lifeguard for the pools on base. Jurgemeyer was sent to Lemoore, Calif., and trained as a nurse before being assigned to the maternity ward on the base there.

Jurgemeyer was there for two years before being medically discharged in February 1975 because she was pregnant. She and her husband at the time had a baby girl.

“It’s changed over the years. Now if you get pregnant, you can stay in,” Jurgemeyer said. “I didn’t even have a maternity uniform to wear.”

Instead, she fashioned a makeshift one of her own out of different pieces of clothing. At the time, female nurses on the maternity ward wore white dresses instead of scrubs.

Steenhoek served on the base in Pensacola for three years, then served for a year in Annapolis and a year in Chicago with the Navy Reserves before transferring to the Army Reserves unit in Cedar Rapids. As a reserve member, she drilled one weekend a month and two weeks a year. The Army sent her to Kirkwood Community College to train as a nurse, and she deployed to San Antonio, Texas, during Desert Storm, caring for American wounded as they returned to the country from the battlefield.

She also used those nursing skills outside the reserves, having working for Veterans Affairs for a time and at several long-term care facilities. She has since retired from nursing and the Army Reserves.

 

 

Honoring service

Jurgemeyer has worked at Whirlpool for the last 23 years, where she is a quality auditor. Both sisters are members of the American Legion Marion Post 298. They had both seen the traveling Vietnam War memorial and wanted to see the real thing.

“As soon as I heard about the Honor Flight, I asked, ‘How do I sign up?’” Jurgemeyer said.

Even the smaller traveling wall “was just mind boggling,” Jurgemeyer said. “The impact it had when I saw it was just huge.”

Neither of them know anyone whose name is carved on the list of those killed in the war. They remember well when President Richard Nixon announced no more U.S. troops would be sent to Vietnam, in 1973, not long after they had both joined the Navy.

“We were very lucky,” Jurgemeyer said. “Women weren’t sent over except as Army nurses.”

 

 

She had one friend who was missing in action for a time. He was later found and returned home, “But he was never the same,” she said.

Jurgemeyer emphasized the need for the government to offer care and support for veterans.

“There are too many homeless veterans. Too many are not getting the VA care they need,” she said. “Every war has their shellshocked, their PTSD. It’s not always something you can see.”

But she said she is glad she served and would do it again.

“Would I recommend someone going into the service? Yes, I would,” she said. “It’s a good experience.”

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