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Fifty years ago, the Vietnam War wound down and soldiers who survived it returned home. More than 36,000 Montanans served in the war. For the 50th anniversary of its end, students at the University of Montana School of Journalism spoke with Vietnam vets across the state. Here are their stories.

Brothers Killed in Action: Memories of Montanans Who Died in the Vietnam War

Bob Dunbar visiting his brother's name on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. His older brother served and was killed in a helicopter crash in 1969.
Bob Dunbar visiting his brother's name on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. His older brother served and was killed in a helicopter crash in 1969.

More than 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War that ended nearly 50 years ago – their names are on the famous wall in Washington, D.C. Those names include 266 Montanans. Now, five decades later, the effects linger. Those killed in action left behind grieving parents and children and significant others. They left behind their brothers and sisters, too.

Bob Dunbar of Corvallis was just two years younger than his brother who went to Vietnam. Specialist Doyle Dunbar, who served with the 101st Airborne with the U.S. Army, died in a helicopter crash in 1969.

"I have a lot of pride in the fact that my brother was killed in Vietnam. Not that I wanted him to be, but you know, those are, those are kind of the thing. So, my perspective of the Vietnam War is probably very different from most other people, probably, people that lost people in the war," said Dunbar.

When he found out Doyle had died, he was 18 and at home in bed waiting to find out if he got into the Air Force Academy.

"So now you have kind of a family catastrophe that would say you probably shouldn't go to the Air Force Academy. And yet, we were poor and my education would have been paid for. So I had a decision to make, but I decided to accept the appointment to the academy," said Dunbar.

For Bob, when the funeral came around, he chose not to see his brother's body

"Because we were told that he was killed by flame. You know, when the helicopter lands in the ground, you got all sorts of gasoline and that type of stuff. All of them, always,,start burning. I had no desire," Dunbar said.

At the academy, he didn't talk about what happened to his brother. Even his roommate never even knew until he visited Bob back at his mother's home.

"It wasn't that I certainly wasn't ashamed that my brother had been killed in Vietnam, but I didn't want that to be my credo, I guess I would say," said Dunbar.

Bob has slowly, through the years, opened up more and more about losing his brother. In 1994, he took his family to the capital. He helped his two kids find their uncle's name on the Vietnam Memorial. Panel 27W, line 86.

"You know, in nine days it’s gonna be 55 years. I can still cry about that," Dunbar said.

Bob's grandson was born on the anniversary of his brother's death, April 15th. That had always been a hard day for him and his family. Bob's grandson will one day inherit all of Doyle's memorabilia, from his brother's shadow box, which contains all of his medals, to the burial flag.

"He ends up being the, the heir to all my brother's stuff, whether he wants it or not," said Dunbar.

Mary Kepler, of Lewiston, Montana, also has a box of memories about her brother. Mainly letters he wrote and letters she later received from others he served with. Intelligence Specialist Dennis Casey served in the 7th Infantry Regiment in the Marine Corps.

 Mary Kepler and family during the last Christmas before her brother was killed in action in Vietnam.
Mary Kepler and family during the last Christmas before her brother was killed in action in Vietnam.

"He died in 1967 with just 11 days left before his scheduled transport home. So, he was 14 years older than me, so, you know, he was my hero," said Kepler.

She was just 11 years old when he died. It was, it was a A big shock when he didn't come home. The day she found out, she was over at her friend's house just down the street and called to check in.

Her 16 year old brother Mike told her she better head home.

"But I walked in the back, to the back door, as I normally did. And my mom, just, she was the first one that saw me. And came and hugged me and said, Denny's not coming back. And it was like, wow," said Kepler.

Kepler's brother Dennis. He was killed just 11 days before he was scheduled to return home from serving in Vietnam.

When it came to the day of the funeral, Mary remembers it as a bleak and cloudy day. And up at the cemetery, she mostly remembers how spread apart her family was.

"And our family was sort of, I don't know, this is probably getting very personal, but our family was sort of all, you know, Standing apart from each other, you know, instead of just really holding on," said Kepler.

Mary's brother was such a big influence on her life.

"I went into teaching, I think, a lot because of Denny. I thought so highly of him. I ended up going to the same college that he went to," Kepler said.

She's still extremely proud to share anything about her brother with anyone. He's remembered other places too. At Rocky Mountain College, the college dedicated a room in his memory because he made an impact there.

Yellowstone Boys Ranch had a memorial set up in his name. The Kendall Boy Scout Camp that's outside of Lewistown, they built a bandstand.

Mary has shared his story many times as a teacher in Montana schools.

"I got to share the letter Denny had written from Vietnam to the public asking, you know, when I, when I get out of Vietnam, I really am looking for a job. Can you please put my name on the list? So, you know, the, um, it was fun to share his love for education," said Kepler.

Like Bob Dunbar, Mary is retired. More than 50 years after their brothers died, they try and make sure their own kids know about the uncle they never met. Mary's son, Ryan Dennis Kepler, got his middle name from his uncle.

Mary has a photo of her daughter sitting on someone's shoulder at the wall. She found Dennis Lee Casey, panel 22E, line 6.

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