About two weeks after a UW-Milwaukee journalism class began searching for a photo of Robert Wisch, who died in Vietnam, a phone call came from a Florida area code. It was Kathleen Henkelman. His sister.
“Bobby was my second oldest brother,” she said.
Did she have any photos of Robert that she could perhaps scan and send over to the student?
“See you caught me at an interesting time,” Kathleen said. “I’m battling cancer.”
Knowing she only has years—or maybe months—to live, Kathleen sent the student every last picture she had of her brother, Robert James Wisch, of Milwaukee.
“To be able to speak with someone one last time about Bobby—it’s a great honor,” she said of the protective young man from the troubled Milwaukee family who died in Vietnam at age 19 and about whom she says, “our souls communicate.”
The class was seeking the photo—and 63 others—for the Wall of Faces and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s education center; the nonprofit is fundraising to build it across the street from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. The center hopes to digitally project hundreds of photos of the soldiers who died in Vietnam. But they need the photos first.
Their names are on the Wall but many have no pictures. No face to their brave name. And until a few weeks ago, Robert Wisch was one of them. He was one of 64 service members from Wisconsin—out of more than 1,100 who died in Vietnam—for whom there was no picture. The students searched. In newspapers, in obituaries, in high school yearbooks. People just didn’t value capturing moments in photographs in the 1960s as much as we do now, so it was challenging.
Robert Wisch was not an incredibly common name, but you’d be surprised how many Wisches live in Wisconsin. Eventually, the student found Robert’s name in an obituary for an uncle. Near it, the name “Kathleen.” But all of her Florida phone numbers were disconnected, and the name of her husband, Marty didn’t provide a working phone number either. There was an address, however, so the student wrote her.
I’m a student at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee and I’m working on a state-wide effort to find missing photos of Vietnam Veterans for the Wall of Faces and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. I found your name in an obituary listed by a mister Robert James Wisch. I’m hoping you might be related to Mr. Wisch and could perhaps help me out in my search for his photo, and his story.
I look forward to hearing from you,
Mary Jo Contino
He was her “rock”
Robert James Wisch didn’t have the life he should have had.
In and out of foster homes since his adolescence, Robert endured years of verbal and physical abuse from his mentally-ill mother, the sister said.
Kathleen, his sister, was his only real family.
“There was no family,” Kathleen said. “There was just Bob and I. He was my rock.”
Their mother, Lorraine, played favorites. According to Kathleen, she despised Robert because he looked like her ex-husband. She loathed Kathleen because she was jealous of the male attention her daughter got as a young adult. But, Lorraine loved her other, eldest son.
“He could do no wrong,” Kathleen said. “She could’ve done without Bob and me.”
Robert and Kathleen stuck together, taking care of each other.
Growing up in Milwaukee housing projects, Kathleen experienced various minor forms of abuse. One time, she was walking home from a friend’s house and was passing a playground. She heard a voice speaking to her and stopped walking. It was a shadowed figure, jeering inappropriate things at her.
Kathleen told her brother about what happened. The next night, Robert, three of his friends, and his girlfriend at the time went to the playground. Robert’s girlfriend walked across the playground seeing if she would lure the unknown man to the area. It did not work.
A week later, Kathleen was sitting on her porch. She heard the voice again. When she stood up to see who it was, the man quickly ran across the street and out of sight. Kathleen told Robert that the man was back.
Robert went around the neighborhood knocking door-to-door looking for the man. He found him.
“Bob beat the hell out of him,” Kathleen said.
Robert spent some time in jail for the assault, but Kathleen knew that he didn’t regret what he did.
“He took care of me in every way imaginable,” she said.
He took care of others as well. At a local football game, Robert was standing on the street with friends when he noticed a girl and her boyfriend getting into a physical fight. The man pushed his girlfriend into on-coming traffic. Robert ran into the street and grabbed her out of the way before a truck almost struck her.
“He was truly a hero,” Kathleen said.
Off to Vietnam
Robert never graduated from high school. The emotional strain that came from not having a permanent home and having an abusive mother critically affected his grades.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1966. After basic training and camp, Robert returned home before being deployed to Vietnam.
On Oct 10, 1967, Robert was killed by a landmine. He was posting guard and there was a faulty wire. The mine went off and killed him. He was only 19.
“He didn’t want to die. He was scared. And he ended up dying anyway,” Kathleen said. “But you’re not a coward because you don’t want to die.”
Lorraine went to Kathleen’s high school to pick her up the day they found out about Robert’s death. They walked home side-by-side, not saying a word.
The years following, Kathleen spent most of her time with her mother. They didn’t speak much about Robert, but she thought of him every day. Time passed.
Kathleen met her husband, Marty, in 1978. She was a shopaholic with every credit card imaginable, and he was a cab driver. After they fell in love and got married, Kathleen bought her first car: a Chevy Cavalier. While she was signing papers at the dealership, Marty caught eyes with a shiny, spanking new pickup truck. Kathleen noticed his interest and bought him the truck right then and there.
“I used to try to buy love,” she said.
She tried to buy her mother’s love. Eight years before Lorraine’s death, Kathleen bought her a copy of her favorite film, “Gone with the Wind,” for Christmas. Her mother gave the movie to her daughter-in-law saying she didn’t want it.
For the last eight years of her mother’s life, Kathleen didn’t speak to her. Lorraine had nothing to do with Kathleen or her husband.
The end is near
At the end of last July, 45 days after Marty had finished radiation for his prostate cancer, Kathleen found a massive amount of blood in her urine. It didn’t surprise her one bit.
“I have been smoking like a chimney since I was 12,” she said. “I have never been able to quit. It’s the worst addiction you could possibly imagine.”
At some point in her life, Kathleen knew that her smoking habit would take a toll on her health. In an effort to find out what was wrong, she visited multiple doctors who did multiple tests and scans to rule out multiple causes for her hematuria.
Doctors found benign tumors in her bladder but also found that her right kidney was completely enveloped by cancer. In an attempt to kill the malignancies through a vein excision, her kidney died.
With an exception of trying to prevent the cancer from spreading, there’s nothing that doctors can do for Kathleen. She is expected to have anywhere between two and three years left, but it could be months.
Kathleen is optimistic. And she feels her brother with her through her fight every day.
“Deep down, I feel like our souls communicate,” she said.
The morning Robert left for Vietnam, Lorraine wouldn’t let him wake Kathleen up to say goodbye.
“If I saw Bob face-to-face one more time, I would just say I’m sorry,” Kathleen said. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see him off the morning he left.”
So after his death, she became a hugger. She hugs everyone: her friends, her doctors, even strangers. Kathleen says hugging helps her make up for not being able to say goodbye to her brother that morning.
Although she may not have that much time or hugs left in her, she wants Robert to be remembered. Whether it be in a memorial, or simply his name scratched on a rock.
In a hand-written letter written to the student sent along with Robert’s photos, Kathleen wrote this:
My eyesight is going so my handwriting gets much worse with time. When I’m gone, no one deserves to have anything of his but you and your story. I love you for asking to see them.