EMPORIA (KSNT) – The younger brother in a large family, Tom Soetaert was not the only one connected to the military, with four of his family’s five sons serving their country.
“Two were in the Navy and one was in the Air Force, so I was the first to hit the ground running: Infantry Marine Corps,” Soetaert said. “The first few weeks were quite difficult. We had a lot of action. I was with the 26th Marines when I first arrived. There was a lot of action. It was a large battalion type operation. We moved in large groups of guys.
Growing up on a farm in Olathe, Soetaert says his upbringing instilled values of service and patriotism.
“Growing up in the Midwest, we believed that if I served in the military, that would be a good step,” Soetaert said. “As far as education goes, if you really didn’t have direction in high school, I think that was a good step.”
Abroad, Soetaert’s team of marines collaborated with local soldiers to patrol villages and educate the local population on defensive maneuvers.
“Some of the villages we were in were overrun after we left,” Soetaert said. “Most of them we trained popular force, to protect that village. They were American weapons, American support. We taught them how to call in artillery, airstrikes, medivacs—everything they needed to survive in an infantry company. This was the most fulfilling thing when I was there.
Moving from village to village, not all stops have been a long-term success.
“It was quite disheartening to see a village you lived in for two or three weeks, rebuild bridges, protect them, teach them how to use weapons, and then a week later it was overrun by the Viet Cong,” he said.
While the experience was intense, Soetaert’s time in Vietnam taught him a lot about leadership and trust.
“Nice people around you, you know,” Soetaert said. “The boy in your trench was your back. You had to depend on him. The Marine Corps was really good at making sure you knew that. That was your cover. That was your ticket home, that was the boy with you, no one left behind. It was nice.”
After finishing his time abroad, Soetaert took root in Emporia. He remains active in retirement, keeping up with his grandkids around the state and fixing homes in the area.