Russ Volz is a Vietnam War veteran who is fighting for his life once again.
At age 62, Volz is battling with cancer. Diagnosed with leukemia after a routine colonoscopy at age 60, Volz was informed he had stage 4 colon cancer and it had spread to his lungs and liver.
“To look at me you’d never know it,” said Volz. “I feel fine for the most part, and I guess I’ve always had a good outlook on life, so I just keep going.”
New London native Volz was raised on his parents’ farm north of town and graduated from Washington Senior High at the age of 17, in the spring of 1965. He wanted to be a farrier – one who cares for and shoes horses – and attended a South Dakota farrier school. Upon his return in 1966, he was drafted and the war in Vietnam would be his focus for the next two years.
First came basic training in Missouri, and then advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. His Army unit went to Seattle to wait for a plane that would carry them into the dangers of war.
“When you’re young like that, you’re care free. You have no idea what you’re getting into. You get a lesson real quick as to how it really is,” said Volz of his experience as a fresh infantryman.
Volz and his platoon were assigned to border patrol along the Vietnam and Laos border. When the Tet Offensive hit Saigon they were flown in to protect civilians and then returned to their patrol. “When the north took over, all the names of the towns were changed so nobody even recognized the map anymore,” said Volz.
“We started out using M60 machine guns and then used Russian AK 47’s. I used an M16 and even a shotgun, depending on what our surroundings were at the time,” explained Volz.
He recalled when soldiers had leave, many would let the married men pick first, knowing they had someone waiting for them. “I guess it was a little easier for us bachelors, not having to worry about anyone else while we were there.”
Like many Vietnam veterans, Volz doesn’t like to recall specifics about his war-time tour in Southeast Asia. He spent the last few months of Army duty in Fort Hood, Texas.
“It’s really kind of crazy how you go from a war zone back to life as usual. When he returned to New London there was no recognition that he had been to war. “I just came back and got a job at Curwood. The other men who worked there were quite a bit older, so I didn’t talk to anyone about the war.”
“I deal with all my stress internally, I always have,” said Volz. “I didn’t want to burden my mother when I had troubles on the farm. What could she do about it? It ‘s kind of always been like that for me.”
“I’m just glad I got through the war. I have a lot to be thankful for,” said Volz, a father and grandfather. “They say agent orange could have caused my cancer, but I’ll never know for sure.”
Now facing his war on cancer, Volz says the Veterans Administration has been very good to him and his family through the entire ordeal. “I have to travel to Milwaukee for everything, and sometimes that gets old, but they do an excellent job, and there are so many cancer treatments available now that help. More than ever before.”
Volz says he received chemotherapy after his diagnosis, and then the doctor discussed surgery. “That’s a complete 360 (degrees) from the way they used to treat cancer,” said Volz. “They used to put you under the knife and then do chemo. Now they’ve learned to reduce the cancer first. It’s remarkable what can be done.”
Volz says his mother and grandmother both had colon cancer. His mother is a survivor, because she caught it early on.
Volz’s one regret is that he didn’t get a colonoscopy at age 50, or even 55. He waited until he was 60 and the cancer had grown very large. He says he would urge anyone who is of the age to go and have this test performed, because early detection will save your life.
“If there is any way I can help someone who has questions about cancer, I’d be glad to talk with them,” said Volz.
The Vietnam Veteran was humbled this year when Old Glory Honor Flight coordinators Tony and Lorraine Van Kampen called him to say he was accepted on a fight to Washington to see his Vietnam Memorial. The flight is designed specifically for World War II veterans, but also accepts other Veterans who have an incurable disease.
Volz said he got a lot out of the entire day, learning so much more about World War II from listening to the stories the veterans told. “It was a great experience going on that flight, and I’m very thankful.” Then he got a bit choked up, and said that the welcome home they received at the airport was incredible. “I never saw anything like that before, it was really something.” For those who have not witnessed it, the reception lines are endless, a terminal packed with well-wishers and patriotic colors. It meant a lot to Volz to see his wife Cathy and daughter Beth standing there with 30 other friends and family, with a big sign, welcoming him, like he’d just returned from Vietnam.
Volz and his wife Cathy are retired now, after years of farming together, working in the carpet business together and most recently with Russ in the contracting business. “I like to keep busy with my hobby jobs. I like to build things and I enjoy going to all the games and shows my grandkids are in.”
Volz is not only fighting his war, but getting on with life, too. “It doesn’t pay to worry about it. I’m lucky to be here and appreciate what I have for as long as I have it.”
New London’s Relay for Life is June 10-11 at the New London Middle School track. The public is invited to attend Friday evening opening ceremonies and a survivor walk around the track at 6 p.m., followed by many hours of fundraising to support the American Cancer Society. Luminaria are available at local banks or at the Relay.