EMPORIA (KSNT) – The younger brother in a big family, Tom Soetaert wasn’t the only one military bound, with four of out the five sons in his family serving their country.

“Two were in the Navy and one was in the Air Force, so I was the first ground-pounder – infantry Marine Corps,” Soetaert said. “The first few weeks it was pretty rough. We had a lot of action. I was with the 26th Marines when I first got there. There was a lot of action. It was a big battalion type operation. We moved in big groups of guys.”

Growing up on a farm in Olathe, Soetaert says his upbringing instilled values of service and patriotism.

“Raised in the Midwest, we believed if you served in the military, it was a good step,” Soetaert said. “Education wise, if you really didn’t have a direction in high school, I think it was a good step.” 

Overseas, Soetaert’s squad of Marines partnered with local soldiers to guard villages and educate the local populace on defensive maneuvers.

“Some of the villages we were in got overrun after we left,” Soetaert said. “Most of them we trained the popular force, to protect that village. It was American weapons, American support. We taught them how to call in artillery, air strikes, medivacs – all the stuff they needed to survive in an infantry company. That was the most fulfilling thing when I was there.” 

Moving from village to village, not every stop was a long-term success.

“It was kind of disheartening to see a village that you lived in for two to three weeks, rebuilt the bridges, protected them, taught them how to use weapons, and then a week later it got overrun by Viet Cong,” he said.

While the experience was intense, Soetaert’s time in Vietnam taught him a lot about leadership and trust.

“Good people around you, you know,” Soetaert said. “The guy in your foxhole was your back. You had to depend on him. The Marine Corps was really good about making sure you knew that. That was your cover. That was your ticket home, was the guy with you, no one left behind. It was good.”

After finishing up his time abroad, Soetaert planted roots in Emporia. He stays active in retirement, keeping up with the grandkids around the state and fixing up houses in the area.