'I don't have that long left': Vietnam veteran in hospice care seeks citizenship
By JOHN SPINA | Daily Times-Call (Longmont, Colo.) | Published: May 1, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — When Werner Trei received his draft letter soon after graduating from Lincoln High in Lincoln, Neb., in 1968, he never considered opting out due to his status as a German citizen. Having immigrated to the United States when he was 2 years old, he considered himself an American and therefore saw military service as his duty.
That sense of service, however, has never been rewarded by the United States granting him citizenship. Now 71 and suffering from a slew of health problems in hospice care, he's worried it never will be.
While the military used to award citizenship to the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who fought in wars dating to the American Revolution, it ceased to do so following the Korean War. Today, veterans can expedite their naturalization process if they file their application within six months of retiring from the military, but following the Vietnam War, when support for the troops was at historic lows, Trei received no assistance.
Trei was an Army Ranger with the airborne 75th Ranger Infantry Regiment, which headed up reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines and saw some of the toughest action of the war, but as the shortest man in his squadron, Trei was assigned to be a "tunnel rat."
One of the most dangerous jobs in the war, "tunnel rats" were responsible for clearing and destroying the Viet Cong's complex tunnel systems armed with only a pistol, a knife and a flashlight. To make the duty even more dangerous, the Viet Cong would booby-trap the 2-foot wide tunnels with trip wires set to detonate explosives or overturn boxes full of scorpions or poisonous snakes onto the heads of enemy troops.
It was truly torturous, Trei said. To avoid being bitten he would squeeze into the tunnel on his back so he could rip the snakes from the walls and kill them.
"I still have nightmares about it," he said. "The snakes would make this noise when they spit their venom that sounded like when you would squirt water through your teeth as a kid. It was awful. I still have times when it gets me."
Once the "tunnel rats" cleared the booby traps, close, often hand-to-hand, combat ensued.
"We would have to come back to camp each night and report a head count," Trei said, referring to the number of Viet Cong killed. "I'm not proud of that."
When he returned home after a yearlong tour in 1970, he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder and often self-medicated with marijuana.
"It messed him up," his sister, Hilde Lowry, said. "We had two little girls at the time and anytime he heard a loud noise he would go diving to the ground. Just seeing snakes on the TV scared him."
For his service, Trei was awarded three Bronze Stars and a Vietnamese Gallantry Cross for helping to save 100 stranded Vietnamese civilians deep inside enemy-held territory, but not citizenship. In fact, it took him a year just to get a green card after the war and the process was so expensive it nearly bankrupted him. Eventually, he just gave up.
"I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I was just trying to get by."
Feeling the end of his life near, he has recently rededicated himself to his pursuit of citizenship and filed the necessary paperwork with the help of Carrie Sladek, the director of life enrichment at Peaks Care Center in Longmont.
"He studies for his tests every day," she said, "but we're beginning to see fluctuations in his cognitive ability and he's having more trouble remembering his answers each day that passes."
After having a tumor removed from his brain two years ago, he can also no longer walk and has trouble speaking and seeing. The potential to become a citizen before he dies is what keeps him going.
Sladek reached out to Sen. Cory Gardner and Gov. Jared Polis to see if they could help expedite the process. Representatives from Gardner's office couldn't comment on the status of Trei's application.
So long as he doesn't have to pass any snakes on the way there, Trei says he ready whenever they are.
"It would mean the world to me," he said. "I'm in hospice care now, so I don't have that long left."