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Pilot's daughters remember year in Bangkok

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Holly and Stacy Rodzwell had their own adventures in Bangkok while their dad Bob flew combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos

COURTESY OF BOB RODZWELL - Stacy (left) and Holly Rodzwell, pictured in March 1970 in Bangkok, dealt with heat and humidity, venomous snakes, eating squid jerky, meeting kids from all over the world at their international school and being part of a close-knit military community while living with their mom Jody in Bangkok.Bob Rodzwell's daughters Holly and Stacy offer a unique perspective of their year living in Bangkok as children while her dad was flying missions over North Vietnam and Laos during the Vietnam War.

The family rented a two-bedroom apartment for wife Jody; Holly, who was 11 years old;, and her sister Stacy, who was 13 months younger; Rodzwell was one of only four pilots in his squadron to move their families to Bangkok so they could see them every six weeks or so for a few days.

According to Holly, living in Bangkok from October 1969 to October 1970 was the most memorable year of her childhood, although it started as just another move "because we had a lifestyle of moving."

"My parents had seen so much and were so much in love that they wanted to spend as much time together as they could," Holly said. "The decision to move was my mother's. She was going to reside near my father. She was a very patriotic woman.

"In the beginning, every 30 days we had to go to Laos to renew our visas before our landlady helped us and only my mom had to go. We had to take a plane to Udorn (where her dad was stationed)."

The family's two-bedroom apartment was in a small complex that included a small swimming pool and a courtyard where the residents and their visitors could drive in and park their vehicles for security.

"We had one air-conditioning unit in our bedroom, and our mom would drag her mattress into our room to sleep at night because it was the only cool room," Holly said. "We turned it off during the day."

In addition to the heat and humidity, another issue to deal with was the local wildlife.

"During the monsoon season, the venomous snakes would come out," Holly said. "But I think children adapt easier to new environments than adults. We were considered to be on an unaccompanied tour since my dad wasn't with us, so we didn't go to the school on the base. We went to an international school with students from every imaginable nationality and became friends with them. I will never forget the loving warmth and friendliness of the Thai people.

"Our landlady's house was next door, and we played with her kids and other kids in the building. We didn't leave the building to play. There were lots of orphan children on the streets, and being one of the few American children there, it was not wise to be alone. But we weren't ever scared."

Living in Bangkok, the Rodzwell family ate with both chopsticks and spoons, according to Holly.

"That was normal, and we would eat things like squid jerky," she said. "We had a rule that we could not eat from street vendors. But sometimes we would sneak out of school at lunchtime and eat from the street vendors, and we wouldn't tell our mom. The vendors were happy to accept our spare change, and we never got sick. I think the vendors next to the school were very careful because they didn't want us to get sick from their food and be kicked out.

"We soaked our vegetables and fruit in bleach and water in the sink for a couple hours before rinsing and eating it. Their produce was fertilized with human waste, and our immune systems were not used to it."

Holly was aware of the constant tension her mother felt over her dad flying missions over hostile territory, but to Holly, her dad was a hero.

"On one of his missions, they fired five SAM missiles at his plane," she said. "The first one was a dud, and he had to take evasive action to avoid the other four. He had been an instructor and knew how long to wait to roll over (taking evasive action to avoid the SAM missile that was locked on his plane)."

Holly also remembers her father's commitment to the family, saying, "My dad was a very dedicated husband and father. He called my mom almost every night. He would wait in line to call, and at our end, the switchboard was in a small room manned by a teenager on the ground floor of our building.

"There was a telephone and a person in that room, and my mom would go down to talk to him. She had a notepad and would write down the news of the day – what we kids had done and what news she heard. She would hear on the news that a pilot had gone down, and if she knew he was flying that day, she would worry until she heard from him."

The family became part of the community that included families of other military personnel, "but your community becomes very small when you're in the military," Holly said. "We heard about the POWs and MIAs. I asked my dad if he was worried about his mission while walking to his plane, and he said no, but some guys would throw up before or after their mission. He was a good pilot, and he focused on the target and the mission itself."

Holly remembers that when her dad came home, "he wasn't a warrior, he was my dad."

She added, "I was clinging to him and combed his hair. We would play in the apartment pool. It was sheer happiness to have our father back."

That year in Bangkok changed this sisters' lives forever.

"I didn't feel my life was limited there," Holly said. "My life was expanded and enriched by being there. I had school and friends. I always wanted to see my father, and there was the underlying stress that maybe he wouldn't return. I knew of families who had lost dads who or who were MIA or POW. We wore MIA and POW bracelets with their names on them, but I didn't want to wear a bracelet with my dad's name on it.

"The experience made me appreciate freedom and food and clean water. I appreciate life a lot more, and that is why I volunteer a lot and am passionate about things."

Stacy added, "I never really knew the extent of my dad's missions until I got older. It's amazing he is still here to tell his stories. Some of his buddies were not so fortunate. Living in Thailand was just another move, and we made it the best we could. As long as the family was together!" For Holly, her life came full circle three years ago when she visited the apartment complex. She still remembered the address and gave it to a cab driver, who took them there.

"We went down the same road," Holly said. "It hadn't changed at all – it was like going back in time, and all these emotions came up. We drove into the little parking area – the little areas were made of marble, and marble doesn't change. The people came down, and we explained why we were there, and they let us walk around."

One memory that came flooding back was when Holly and her mom were sitting on the stairs and saw a King Cobra four or five feet away.

"It swayed its neck and fanned out like it was going to strike," Holly said. "You are not supposed to move, but we got up and ran. All these memories came flooding back. I remembered my dad's missions and when he came to see us. I am not normally emotional, but I was very emotional."

Stacy added, "To this day, I am extremely afraid of snakes due to the snake farms we went to."

Holly explained that "my dad later said, 'We should never have brought you there,' but I said that I wouldn't be the person I am today without that experience. Had my parents not made the decisions they did, the lives of my sister and I would be so different. We both ended up joining the Navy.

"My dad downplayed his missions and accomplishments, but I know he is exceptional because he is still alive. There were lots of heroes during that war – and he's one of them. They did their job and did it well."

Holly's mom Jody died a year ago, but Holly remembers her as a little dynamo: "She never weighed over 100 pounds," she said. "But she had amazing strength and was an athlete. My dad was the brains – he had a way of thinking things through."

Stacy added, "My mom was the glue that held us all together. She never showed her fear of my dad's missions, and we were too young to know any difference. She was barely 5 feet tall – with a little pack of punch in her spirit! God, I sure miss her!"