In the summer of 1965, when Karen Wagner was a pint-size tagalong trailing her big brother and sister around the Fort Riley Army Base, everybody called her Peanut. The nickname had been given by a platoon sergeant named Omer Darty, whom she knew as Uncle Omer. The two weren’t related by blood or marriage, but he was tight enough with her dad, a combat medic named Bill, that “uncle” was the only word that made sense. And it reflected the earliest understanding that the little girl with the big, inquisitive eyes had about life, one that was two-pronged but simple: Her family was Army, and the Army was family.
The Wagners lived in Junction City, Kansas, filling a three-bedroom house surrounded by other military families. Everyone Karen knew was of that world. Her babysitters were Army wives and Army brat teenagers. Her doctor and dentist visits were always at the base clinic, not far from the hospital where she had been born. When her mom, Mattie, couldn’t go to the store, a friend would take her grocery list to the PX. The highlight of Karen’s earliest Christmases was a pageant at an auditorium at Fort Riley. And when the soldiers left for tours in Vietnam, families would often move in together to share bills and to give moral support. So when Bill and Uncle Omer deployed that summer, it stood to reason that Omer’s new wife, Thelma, would move in with the Wagners.
For all the changes that a fatherless household entailed, Army kids knew that there were two primary things to keep an eye out for. The first was packages from overseas, and Karen’s dad was good about that. He’d send exotic-looking baby dolls and candy she’d never seen before, along with radios, wristwatches, and dresses for Mattie. That the chocolate bars would have melted and rehardened several times in transit, rendering them a strange gray color upon arrival, would merely be something to tease him about when he finally came home.
But the other potential delivery was terrifying. Though the Wagner kids didn’t talk about it, they knew that their dad might not be coming home at all. They knew too that the only time the base commander would venture into their neighborhood was to bring that news. It happened often enough that even a child as young as Karen, then four and a half, was able to recognize his car. If she was playing in the yard and saw the big green sedan rolling up the block, she froze.
One day that December, the sedan stopped in front of the Wagners’ house. Karen and her sister, eleven-year-old Kim, watched as the base commander and another man got out. Mattie let the men in but shooed the girls into a bedroom before sitting down in the kitchen with the men and Thelma. The sisters stood silently with their ears against the door. Seconds stretched into agonizing minutes, until finally they heard someone scream. But they couldn’t tell who. Kim bolted for the kitchen and saw Thelma crying. Mattie quickly ushered her back to her sister.
Eventually Mattie joined them. Before she could even take a seat on the bed, Karen started asking questions.
“What happened to Uncle Omer?” she asked.
“He stepped on a landmine,” Mattie said.
“How did it happen? Is he coming back? What’s going to happen to Miss Thelma?”
Mattie had no way to respond. And though the answers eventually came, for Karen they were by themselves never enough. Omer Darty was not just a name in the news.
Years later, as a 33-year-old personnel officer newly transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., Major Karen Wagner would make her first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. She found Uncle Omer’s name, pulled a pencil and a sheet of paper from her purse, and made a rubbing of it to take home. In the years that followed, she’d return again and again. During Memorial Day ceremonies she’d volunteer to read aloud the section with his name in it. At other times she’d just sit and think about him. She needed him to know that family doesn’t forget.
Bill Wagner was not the kind of combat veteran who didn’t like to talk about his experiences, but then the Army provided the context and plot for almost all the stories he told. His father had fought in the infantry in World War I. Bill himself was a surgical nurse who’d first seen action overseas in France in World War II. He’d met Karen’s mom, Mattie Smith, at a soldier’s funeral in Montgomery, Alabama, catching her eye as a member of the escort detachment, a handsome man with a thick black mustache, decked out in his crisp dress greens. He was then a 34-year-old sergeant first class from Philadelphia, and she was a quiet country girl of eighteen. Any reservations her parents had about the age difference faded when they saw the way the chatty city boy made their stoic daughter laugh. Just as important, they knew he had a solid career. Bill and Mattie married in early 1951, shortly before he left on his first tour in Korea. Kim was born just before he returned from his second, at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base in 1954, followed by Warren, at Fort Lewis, Washington, in 1957. Then came Kansas, where Karen was born in 1961, and a second son, Karl, in 1964.
When Bill transferred to Fort Sam Houston four years later, he loaded the family into a yellow station wagon and drove them to San Antonio. They moved to Converse a few years after that, once he’d retired and taken a nursing job at a local hospital. But Fort Sam stayed at the center of Karen’s world. That’s where the family went for groceries, health care, and haircuts. They saw movies in the base theater. Kim and Warren, then in their teens, started an R&B group, which played for soldiers returning from Vietnam.