• Links to Oral History Sessions: Stepaniak, Walter (November 23, 2021)
  • Conflict(s): Vietnam War
  • Military Branch & Unit: Army; Air Force
  • Theater(s): Vietnam

Walter Stepaniak was born in 1945 in Bratislava, in what is now Slovakia and at the time was Czechoslovakia. His family had fled Ukraine in order to avoid being arrested by the new Soviet government following World War II. Several members of his family were arrested and imprisoned in Soviet gulags until the 1980s. His family lived in the Displaced Persons Camp in Mittenwald, West Germany until 1950, when they immigrated to the U.S. During their journey through Europe, Mr. Stepaniak was injured on a train that was bombed. When his family arrived in the U.S., they received support from other Ukrainian-Americans and eventually settled in Weymouth Township, near Vineland, New Jersey.

Mr. Stepaniak joined the Army in 1963 and was stationed in Verdun, France, while his brother was stationed near Frankfurt, Germany. He recalls that when President Kennedy was assassinated, it triggered an alert for military forces to prepare for an escalation of the Cold War. After he left U.S. Army active duty, he received a recall notice. To avoid returning to the Army, Mr. Stepaniak elected to join the U.S. Air Force as an air traffic controller. Due to the requirement of a security clearance for this position, he was also trained in communications, where he worked with the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS) until the clearance was granted. He served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970, where his duties included requesting air support and identifying visual markers using smoke-grenades. He was assigned to a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) when the Tet Offensive began. He was sent back to the U.S. to recovery from an injury but volunteered to return to Vietnam, hoping to be returned to the same unit. As he recalls, the unit commander insisted that he complete his General Equivalency Diploma (GED).

After completing his military service, he used the GI Bill to complete a college degree. During his career, he worked in international communications, most notably supporting the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission, when a NASA Apollo module docked with a Soviet Soyuz module in space. He also volunteered as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).