It took two tours of duty in Vietnam for Rev. Dr. William Doubek to find faith.
In 1969, he joined the Air Force after flunking out of college.
“I went into the Air Force thinking they’re clean, they’re new, and they don’t go into combat,” Doubek said. “Pilots do that, but not the Air Force ground people.”
He became an airbase grounds defense security specialist – what he calls an Air Force term for infantry. Doubek was in the U.S. 56th Special Operations Wing.
“We wore berets when not everybody had a beret,” he said.
Doubek was a dog handler. They guarded the base, went on patrols and were often borrowed by Marines or Army.
“I ended up in camouflage and a black vest with an M-16 wondering what happened to the blue stuff,” he said.
On his first tour, Doubek became an atheist. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s at the end of 1970. He was hoping for a ceasefire, but the planes kept taking off. When they were shot down, Doubek was one of the men flown in on a TH-53 chopper in to recover the scene. In war, Doubek said, he saw a lot of bad things and he decided that there could not be any kind of god.
“I went back and put my dog in the kennel, secured my weapon in the armory, went to my hooch, lay down, started to pray and in the middle of it said, ‘No more — why am I wasting my time?’ and that was it,” he said. “I quit praying; quit believing.
“I tell people that I had to go back to get the faith that I had left behind the first time.”
He was in Vietnam 13 months that first tour. When he came back to the states in 1971, he was a 20-year-old sergeant. A chartered airline plane flew the men home.
“It was the quietest flight I’ve ever been on,” he said. “The plane was packed with soldiers who were not talking because we did not know how to talk to non-soldiers, non-military people.”
When he arrived at Travis Air Force Base, officers had them change into civilian clothes in an effort to hide their military status. Doubek didn’t think it would help. It didn’t.
“I’m 20 years old and I’ve got a military haircut,” he told the sergeant, “do you think civilian clothes is going to hide the fact that I’m a soldier?”
The reception at the airport, from friends back home – even family – was not what he expected.
“It was not a good homecoming,” he said.
He was not the person his family remembered and public sentiment left him feeling shunned. When his term was up in November of 1973, he re-enlisted.
Page 2 of 3 - “I re-enlisted because in the military we knew each other,” Doubek said.
A year later, he was on a plane heading back to Vietnam where he would spend another 11 months. His heart began to change.
“On the airplane going back overseas, I said a prayer,” Doubek said. “I had not prayed in years and years. But I said a prayer. ‘God, if you are real I need a sign I need to know if this is all a part of your plan for me.’”
His entire military career, he never had a Sunday off. He asked God for Sundays off to go to church. That would be his sign.
When he reported to the kenne,l his supervisor told him he would be off Sundays when he was not on patrol and Doubek’s road back to faith began.
“I think it was the first time in my entire life that I said ‘Praise the Lord,’” Doubek said. “I’ve said it a lot since then.”
He went back to church, Bible classes and met a chaplain who talked to him about faith. After he left the military, he finished college, learned Greek and Hebrew and attended seminary. He was 49-years-old before he earned his doctorate. Doubek has pastored First Lutheran Church in Neosho for the past 12 years.
“I’m not your ordinary pastor,” Doubek said.
His second tour in Vietnam was hard. The pullout had already begun and that made it emotionally difficult.
“There was nothing we could do except try to get people out,” he said.
The embassy, American nationals and South Vietnamese who had allied themselves with the Americans all had to be evacuated. Doubek was part of last action of the war — the rescue mission for the civilians aboard the S.S. Mayaguez. The Khmer Rouge seized the container ship and left it on the island of Koh Tang.
“It was our job to go get the boat back and we lost over half of our compliment,” Doubek said. “The guys we lost they replaced with Marines out of Okinawa.”
Once the mission was over, he was sent to Bangkok, Thailand, and later Texas where he worked with dogs and drug enforcement. That experience, he said, has drawn him close to law enforcement.
This Memorial Day, Doubek said, it is important to remember those who died – like the 23 members of his unit who died in that last combat mission.
“The way America treats its veterans today is a lot better than the way it was when I was coming home and that’s good thing. But for the average American, it’s not like we’re at war,” he said. “We are a nation at war and America doesn’t know about it, care about it, think about it, unless you know somebody or somebody from your hometown gets killed.”
Page 3 of 3 - Today’s soldiers should be kept in America’s prayers, Doubek said.
“I think we need to be reminded that we have young men and young women in uniform today who are dying fighting in the name of our country. We need to remember that.”