HIAWATHA — Jim Felker and Terry Wiles knew each other for six months when Wiles died more than 50 years ago, but the bond formed while serving together in the Marines has had a profound impact on the rest of Felker’s life.
As Felker explains their fast friendship, they both had blue collar dads and Wiles was a “likable individual.”
On June 10, 1966, they were sweeping a clearing near a mound referred to as “Hill 55” south of Da Nang in the Quang Nam province of South Vietnam. Wiles, who was a short distance ahead, tripped a land mine. It detonated, killing him instantly.
Two days later, Felker’s squad was ambushed in the same area. Enemy fire struck Felker’s abdomen. The wounds nearly killed him.
He underwent emergency surgery and had his spleen removed. He was evacuated to the Philippines then California and eventually to St. Albans Naval Hospital on Long Island, N.Y., where doctors removed a bullet that had nearly penetrated his kidney.
Felker was honorably discharged and sent home.
“After it happened, I would ask myself, ‘Why you and not me?’ ” Felker, 71, said from his home in Hiawatha last month. “I always tried to live my life to accomplish things. If I got a second chance, I better make something of it. ... Subconsciously, I made a decision — I am going to lead a productive life. I am going to accomplish something for those who didn’t make it.”
He held true to his decision.
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Originally from upstate New York, Felker moved to Iowa in 1971 to attend the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He moved to Cedar Rapids in 1982 and later Hiawatha. He had a career in the Department of Corrections as a classification manager in Anamosa and served on the state parole board.
He has two children who are grown and now live in Florida, as well as four stepchildren.
Felker hasn’t forgotten his friend, either.
Several months ago he applied to read Wiles’ name as part of the 35th anniversary ceremony of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. His application was accepted and on Tuesday Felker read 32 names, including that of Terry L. Wiles, as part of a four-day, 65-hour event in which all 58,272 names on the wall are being read. The readings conclude today.
Felker was at the original wall dedication in November 1982, as well, and it was there and then that Wiles re-entered Felker’s life for the first time, in a significant way, since the war. Felker found Wiles’ name on the wall — panel 8E, line 32 — and it moved him to commit to visit his friend’s grave.
“I said, ‘I’ll figure out where you are buried,’ ” Felker said.
And, he did, the next spring. That’s where the story takes a twist.
On the 17th anniversary of Wiles’ death, Felker visited the cemetery in Richmond, Ind., near the Ohio border, where Wiles is buried. He left a note with his name and address in a plastic bag, flowers and an American flag.
Within two weeks, Felker received a letter from Wiles’ parents, Bud and Josie Wiles. They had questions but not just about their son. They also wanted to learn more about Felker.
They exchanged letters for about a year during which the Wiles invited Felker to visit. Felker remembers when he arrived at their acreage in Eaton, Ohio.
“The extended family was there,” Felker said. “They wanted to meet me. I felt I belonged.”
But he sensed a distance.
During the visit, which lasted a few days, Felker and Bud Wiles spoke one-on-one out in the hen house. Bud asked how his son had died, a test of sorts to verify Felker was who he said he was, as Felker remembers it. Felker described an injury to the left side of Terry’s face, at which point Bud knew Felker was genuine. Those details had never been revealed as the wake had a closed casket.
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From then on, Felker and the Wiles family stayed in touch. They continued yearly visits and attended each others’ significant life events.
Felker said the connection provided each side a sense of relief and fulfillment over shared loss. As time passed, they wouldn’t talk about war, or even Terry Wiles, he said. He would go fishing and golfing with Bud, almost like a son and father, Felker said.
“I don’t know how you feel, but Josie and Bud Wiles are very happy,” Jerry Young, Terry Wiles’ aunt, wrote in a 1984 letter after one visit. “They are able to talk about Terry in a way that you can tell they feel much better. Thanks to you.”
Bud and Josie Wiles died in the mid-1990s, but Felker has maintained a relationship with others in the family. They still share Christmas cards.
“We had quite a relationship for a long time,” Felker said. His wife Marilyn said she came to understand how important Terry Wiles and his family are to her husband.
Felker, who earned two Purple Heart medals and a Gold Star for his military service in the First Battalion, Ninth Marine Regimen, Third Marine Division, reflected on a much different world in the 1960s and climate for veterans compared to today. He remembers a few hours after being discharged from the hospital on Long Island, he was in New York City in his military uniform and a woman assaulted him in the back and back of his head with an umbrella.
He couldn’t understand the hatred toward veterans back then. He still doesn’t.
“We represented our generation well,” Felker said. “We did what was asked of us and served our country honorably.”
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