Embrace A Veteran: Refugee shares story of survival and service as Army colonel

Embrace A Veteran: Refugee shares story of survival and service as Army colonel

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - If I said to you, "Guten tag, ich heise Michael," you might need a translator to know I said: "Good day, my name is Michael."

This time, we meet a Vietnam veteran whose knowledge of foreign language and culture was critical during his 30-plus years of service.

His fight for survival actually started at the age of 5, as a refugee during World War II.

"We marched on foot day and night, basically begging our way through Hungary and then into Austria with just the clothes on our backs. We had no chance to even bring any papers with us so that's how we arrived," said Vietnam veteran Hans Duerr.

Duerr was just 5 years old when part of his family survived the otherwise deadly trip from Romania to then U.S.-occupied Austria toward the end of World War II.

"Lentz was at that time a target and so the bombed-out buildings and all that became a daily sight and mostly it was a struggle for survival though," he said. "I had lost my father in Stalingrad and so my grandfather was the male figure that saw us through it all. Pretty terrifying, yes."

Duerr attended the refugee school and perfected his German speaking skills before coming to America at the age of 16. He joined the ROTC program at Ohio State before accepting a role with the Army.

"My goal had always been to become a college professor so I figured, well, three years I serviced my adoptive country and then you know I'll pursue my other career. Well, as it turned out, after the three years were up I could not leave the Army because by that time we were tangled in Vietnam and my resignation was not accepted," Duerr said. "I served at the rule of a president which ended up being 30 years."

Duerr received several medals and awards for his service, which included work as a translator and educator on three tours to Germany over 11 years.

He even created a book for his children, called "The Life and Times of Opa Duerr," documenting his career, which included his support of combat forces in Vietnam, teaching and training Vietnamese soldiers who fought alongside U.S. troops.

Col. Duerr said he could especially relate to the children fighting for survival, without parents.

"I obviously became very compassionate to them and I ended up, for example, sponsoring with my fellow team members an orphanage and trying to mitigate as much as we could the war. Like I said, I lost a grandfather in WWI, I lost my father and two uncles, two of his brothers, in WWII and so I feel very fortunate that I made it," Duerr said.

So many others, however, did not.

"I knocked on the door informing this young widow and parents that her son had been killed in Vietnam. That was tough. I had a number of occasions to (do) that. It was tough."

And the battle for survival was not over.  The assignment at the University of Wisconsin during Vietnam protests was also harrowing.

"My department got attacked by about 2,000 students and we were called baby killers. My classroom was stormed and I had to be rescued by the police," Duerr said.

Among his most lasting lessons was compassion for property and people.

"Well, I tried to do my best wherever I was assigned. I tried to leave it a better place than I found it," he said. "I always tried to take care of the troops on my staff and if you take care of the people, they will take care of you and you will take care of the mission."

Taking care of his family and grandchildren is also a priority.

Duerr's children were present for his promotion to colonel, where he says his endlessly supportive wife earned a medal of her own.

"The Air Force colonel said, 'You know Barbara,' to my wife, he said, 'When guys - particularly Army types - get promoted to colonel they tend to get rather bossy,' so he said to ensure that you still continue to be the boss and he reached in his pocket and pinned an honorary general star on her. So anyway that was a memorable moment in our life."

See the transcript of WMBF's interview with Duerr below:

Copyright 2018 WMBF News. All rights reserved.