Grandfather, granddaughter both served proudly
Melvin Viktor of rural Hillsboro and his granddaughter, Lori Smith of rural Lincolnville, both wanted to serve their country and both experienced the trauma of war.
The 93-year-old Viktora served in the Army for more than 20 years during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Smith, 50, served in the Army for 13 years. She served four years in the United States during Operation Desert Storm and nine years in the Kansas National Guard.
In 2003, Smith was deployed to Iraq as an army specialist, where she helped lay fuel pipelines to the frontlines. She and her fellow workers were responsible for their own safety and often were attacked.
Viktora and Smith both experienced post-traumatic stress but were treated much differently.
Viktora was trained to be tough and not acknowledge stress, so as not to appear weak to his fellow soldiers. He said he was on the verge of committing suicide when he was released from the army. He had to deal with it by himself and developed a drinking problem. He has been alcohol-free for 40 years.
Smith received counseling and medication through the Veterans Administration after she left the army in 2004. She is a lab technician at St. Luke Hospital.
“My grandpa’s generation prepared the way for better treatment of the military,” Smith said. “My PTSD will never be completely gone, but I’ve learned to live with it. I won’t let it hold me back from living.”
Proud to serve
Viktora spoke animatedly about his desire to serve his country while growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota. His father got a deferment for him because he was needed on the farm, but in March 1945, he left home and joined the Army.
He was in the Philippines when the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, ending the war.
He went to Europe, where he met his wife, a survivor of an Austrian concentration camp. Katharina, a 16 year old, had been left for dead among other shooting victims when several Jewish guards spotted her and threw her in a hole to save her life. She spent two days there. Two months later, the camp was liberated, and she was released.
When Viktora saw Katharina, he was attracted to her and wanted to marry her, but he wasn’t allowed to marry her in Europe because she was a German. He returned to America alone. A few years later, she wrote a letter to President Harry Truman, asking for permission to come to America. He granted her request, and they were married in 1950.
“She was my backbone,” Viktora said of his wife, who passed away in 2011. “I had a drinking problem that was hard on her, but she stuck with me.”
He soon was deployed to Korea and had several very close calls.
Viktora was in a bunker when he heard artillery whistling overhead and machine guns firing. Then he heard a big crash. When the guns went silent, he looked out and saw the wrecks of two planes. One engine was a few feet away. The landscape was bare and brown. Miraculously, no soldiers on the ground were hurt.
On the last day of the war, Viktora was working on a jeep when he heard artillery and dove into a bunker. He had been living in a hole for a year.
“I want to go home,” he thought. “I don’t want to be killed now.”
The attack stopped, and he was able to go home.
He continued to serve in the army and was deployed to Vietnam, where he suffered hearing loss and almost lost his eyesight during a bombing attack. He spent three days in a hospital.
He returned to the states and was stationed at Fort Riley when he retired. He lives with one of his daughters, Martha Houser of Hillsboro. He travels a lot with the help of another daughter and recently attended the marriage of a great-granddaughter near Boston.
He has an assortment of health problems, but he continues to face life with a cheerful spirit.
“I love to see people laugh,” he said. His granddaughter agreed.
“Laughter and humor gets us through,” she said, “and we value the little things now, like a toilet and running water.”
Last modified Nov. 7, 2019