MORRISON – Not every hero of the Vietnam War fired a shot or even carried a gun.
Morrison native son Steve Siefken is one such hero, although it took him years to realize that, and in many ways it’s still sinking in.
Siefken, 77, was an intercept operator in the Air Force Security Service, and his job was spying on Russia, 3,800 miles away, from San Vito dei Normanni Air Station in San Vito, Italy.
Siefken will tell you that his weapon was his headphones but, arguably, it also was his intelligence, his love of country and his ability to be discreet, a skill that he retains to this day. There are aspects of his job that, 55 years later, he still won’t discuss, and confidences he won’t reveal.
Maybe that’s why he was singled out for his role, which required him, at the tender age of 19, to have top-secret clearance.
Only 1% of those who served in the Air Force Security Service were chosen for this kind of training, and only half of them made it through, he said.
Siefken, who happily gives presentations to community groups on his service, thinks he knows the secret.
“You’re not chosen for this because of your physicality, and you’re not chosen because of your mentality. I think the reason they choose you is for your loyalty,” he said. “That’s my opinion.”
And although loyalty to his country is something he has in spades, Siefken was a bit of a reluctant warrior at first.
His father, Russell Siefken Sr., was a World War II veteran who was serving on the draft board at the time, and it was a Thursday night in November 1965 at the dinner table with his mom and his older brother, Russ Jr., when his dad dropped the bombshell.
You’re not chosen for this because of your physicality, and you’re not chosen because of your mentality. I think the reason they choose you is for your loyalty.”— Steve Siefken, an Air Force intercept operator during the Vietnam War
“We were sitting there eating, and he nonchalantly said to me, ‘Well, I signed your draft notice today, you’re probably going to Vietnam,’ ” Siefken said. “It wasn’t a total surprise, but it ruined the supper, let’s put it that way.”
His boss at the Whiteside Sentinel suggested that he join the Reserves, “but I decided if I was going to join the military, I was going to go all the way.”
He joined the Air Force, intending to become a clerk-typist, “and serve my four years and get out, but the government had other ideas.”
Siefken tested well in electronics during basic training, where, mysteriously, they told him they were awaiting security clearance for him, with no further explanation. Afterward, they sent him to Biloxi, Mississippi, for six months of additional training and, shortly after, he was sent to Italy with about 19 others.
Still, he had no clue what his job was going to be.
The first thing he saw was the antenna that he learned he would be using to listen in on the Russians. It was the latest technology of the day, and it was enormous.
“You could put Soldier Field in it seven times,” he said. “You could hear in any direction for 4,000 miles. They called them the elephant cages. They basically covered the world.”
The San Vito base was staffed by the 7275th Air Base Group and had become a primary installation March 1, 1961. It was operated by the U.S. Air Force Security Service and helped to carry out the National Security Agency’s mission to gather information and provide intelligence. The high-frequency monitoring array that Seifken used for communications intelligence was installed in 1964.
There were smaller installations with smaller antennas but only two others of that size in the world, one in England and one in Japan.
Despite that six months of training, the equipment was so high-tech that “everything was new to me. I didn’t even know what I was doing when I started,” he said.
But during his three years and four months at the station, listening, listening, listening – sometimes with eight hours of an annoying tone blaring in his ears that he just had to tolerate – working 12 days on and four days off, he learned, and he learned never to share the things he knew.
“It was important,” he said. “You had to be on your game every day,” and it never was left unmanned.
“We knew what we were protecting,” he said.
His service comes to mind all the time, given the news of the day.
“It puts it into perspective what’s going on in the world now,” Siefken said. “Nothing changes. Nothing’s changed in all these years. We have the same problems with mostly the same people. We didn’t trust the Russians then, and we still don’t trust them now.
“Times are scary now, they were scary back then.”
Siefken earned four commendations during his service in Italy. It was just a sheet of paper “with maybe three or four lines of type,” commending him for achieving his mission, which doesn’t sound like much, he said, “but that was pretty good praise, and when the flight commander came out and presented it to you, you knew you’d done your job.
“That’s how I qualified for the Honor Flight. I didn’t carry a gun. My weapon was my headphones. ... It was a Cold War.
“There was never a shot fired, but it was a war, and people don’t realize all the stuff that was protected. We didn’t realize until years after the service how important it was what we did.”
There’s no monument for the veterans of the Cold War, no acknowledgement from the government of their service, and likely never will be, but that’s one of the reasons it’s important for veterans to tell their stories, he said.
“We should be telling these stores to our families, our grandkids, our neighbors, anybody – tell those stories so that history is remembered,” Siefken said.
These days, that’s just what he is doing – to the extent that he feels he can.
Siefken is happy to share not only what he can about his service but also the joy and the pride he felt taking the 55th Whiteside County Honor Flight with two of his close friends, Stan Buckwalter and Harry Adams, and his dad’s Army cap.
We should be telling these stores to our families, our grandkids, our neighbors, anybody – tell those stories so that history is remembered.”— Vietnam veteran Steve Siefken
“I think it made it more enjoyable and meaningful to have friends there,” he said. “I had my dad’s hat with all his medals. He never got to go on the Honor Flight, so I took his hat and had a picture taken at the WWII monument. That’s all I could do for him.”
That experience also is part of his presentation and fuels his passion for encouraging all veterans to take the free, one-day trip to Washington, D.C.
Many veterans, especially those like him who did not serve in a war zone, think for some reason that they don’t deserve to go. Siefken said he he vehemently disagrees.
”Everybody qualifies for the Honor Flight in a different way,” he said. “Everybody who went is a hero, not in the sense of bravery but in the sense that they went, they served.”
Seeing those monuments to sacrifice is more meaningful than veterans might realize, Siefken said.
“It reaffirms your faith in America and mankind. It makes you feel like your life was worthwhile,” he said.
When people thank him for his service, Siefken always replies “it was my pleasure.”
“It wasn’t my duty,” he said. “It was a pleasure to do that for my country.”
When he came home to Morrison, Siefken met and fell in love with the girl across the street, Derkein, or Deeny, whose family came to America from the Netherlands when she was 7. They married in 1972.
He got his job back at the paper, where he had started working in 1964, and he was head pressman there for 45 years. He still is associated with the paper for what will be 60 years in June.
He and Deeny had two boys and a girl and now have eight grandchildren.
He said he’ll pass his history on to them for sure.
“It’s a story to tell, I guess,” Siefken said with a chuckle. “It’s my life story, my only redeeming factor outside my family and my kids.”
Then a little more reflectively, he said, “I was fortunate I did what I did. The more I tell this story, the more I realize I had a life.”
To hear Siefken’s presentation
Steve Siefken can be reached by phone at 815-564-8973. He is available and delighted to speak to high school classes and community groups and at veterans events.