Vietnam vet finds life and home in Brooklyn
Mike “Bomb” Bombei of Brooklyn credits his wife Sami, left, as his savior. Bombei, a Vietnam veteran, struggled with his experiences from Vietnam for several years. He was recently honored for his service when his name was added to the Veterans Trail located at Coralville Lake.
Mike Bombei, 60, of Brooklyn admits he never felt proud of the time he served in Vietnam and never expected to receive recognition of his service. But this past Memorial Day, he was honored for duties along with three other Iowa residents.
Bomb, as he is called by friends and family, had his name added to the Veterans Trail located near Coralville Lake in Iowa City along with Gerald D. Ambrose, 59, Coralville; Leroy C. Lenoch, 85, Coralville; and David E. Malott, 54, Coralville.
The honor surpised the somewhat shy veteran.
“I’m very honored and very surpised that I was recognized for something that wasn’t so honorable,” he said. “It feels good though.”
Bomb said he didn’t even know the Veterans Trail even existed until three years ago when a friend told him about the site.
The Veterans Trail is a quarter-mile, barrier-free trail. It was completed in 1988. The trail is meant to honor all veterans who have served in the military.
Along the trail are three granite rocks engraved with the names of honorees. Honorees are nominated by the public and selected by a committee of Johnson County Veterans organization members and Coralville Lake staff. Nominees must be a resident of Johnson County, lived a large portion of their life in Johnson County or be a member of a Johnson County Veterans organization; must have been a member of the armed services and have been honorably discharge; and should be living.
Bomb said he was hesitant about the award at first. “I laid low for several years and then my friend Docker nominated me for the award,” he said. “I admit I hesitated a little because I have a hard time with large crowds.”
The day of the ceremony, Bomb felt his nervousness subside as he stood in front of a crowd of more than 200 people because several people in that crowd were friends and family, some he hadn’t seen in decades. Included in Bomb’s cheer section were about 30 or 40 of his friends from a Vietnam veterans’ motorcycle group.
“About two large groups of the club came,” he said. “I couldn’t believe all those people came out, especially on such a rainy day, for something I was doing.
It felt like I was coming home.”
BEGINNING OF A JOURNEY
Home is something Bomb said he only recently discovered, having moved to Brooklyn five or six years ago. Bomb was born and lived in Sigourney until he was 13, when he moved to Iowa City to live with his aunt.
“I lived with her until she couldn’t handle me anymore,” he said. For a time, Bomb lived out of his car, until he was drafted into the Army to serve in Vietnam. He was drafted on March 17, 1969, St. Patrick’s Day.
“I was drafted right before they switched to the lottery system,” he said. He trained for about a year and was then sent to Vietnam as a sergeant. Bomb, still young, was stationed in Duck Pho at LZ (landing zone) Liz.
Bomb wasn’t sure what to expect when he arrived, but there was one thing he knew for sure; he knew fear.
“I’m not ashamed to say I was scared,” he said. “If you weren’t scared, you were dangerous.”
During his year in Vietnam, Bomb led his group into the jungle for 10 to 14 days at a time. They would return to base for a few days to get some rest, resupply and it was back out to the field.
“I had a lot of men I was in charge of. I lost quite a few men,” he said softly. “But their safety was the most important thing to me. I didn’t want to send someone else to do something I could do.”
Even though Bomb was still a “young kid,” he still felt protective of his team. “I couldn’t say to them ‘Go risk your life’ when I wasn’t willing to do the same,” he said. “They were my men and it was important that I get them home.” Getting home was the main thing Bomb said he remembers about the war.
“The things I remember the most was all the rain, the hot weather and wanting to come home,” he said. “The only thing on your mind was making it home, if not, then you were dangerous.”
There were only three ways to get home, you completed your time and discharged, you were injured or you were dead. Bomb, luckily, completed his year in Vietnam and was sent home to Iowa.
A LONG JOURNEY HOME
Bomb returned to Iowa City, nicknamed “Little Berkley” at the time, during the height of protests, which was difficult for him.
“It was really hard to come home from the fields to the protests in Iowa City,” said Bomb. “Now, I may not have agreed with going over there, but once they started to talk and protest about the soldiers and veterans is when I had a problem with it. They didn’t realize what it was like over there.”
Bomb eventually left Iowa City in 1977 and started his journey to his eventual home in Brooklyn.
“It was a long trip to eventually get (to Brooklyn),” he said. “I lived all over the country before settling down here.”
When Bomb set out, he spent a large amount of his time in Sioux City, then moved on to Lincoln, Neb., where he worked for a railroad company. It was in Lincoln where he earned his nickname. It was given to him by a toddler over 25 years ago.
“I was at a friend’s house for a party. Everybody called me by my last name Bombei (pronounced bomb-bee). Dave, my friend’s son, was about 2 and he couldn’t pronounce my whole name, so he kept calling me ‘Bomb.’ The name just stuck,” he said.
Bomb stayed in Lincoln until 1987 when he was injured on the job, losing an eye. He went on to Buffalo Gap, N.D., and eventually hit the road, traveling throughout the country on his motorcycle. During his wandering years, Bomb said he had to deal with several personal demons, remnants of his time in Vietnam.
“I would get these memories and I would drown them out with alcohol,” he said. “I stayed drunk until I sobered up.”
Although Bomb was a veteran, he was unable to receive care and treatment at veterans hospitals while he was drinking.
“They wouldn’t admit you unless you were sober,” he said. “I finally decided to get help.”
Bomb went to a VA clinic in Palo Alto, Calif., to tackle the hard task of facing himself.
“I was forced to look at myself and be sober doing it,” he said. “It isn’t any easier to look at myself, but I’ve accepted the fact I can’t bury all those memories anymore.”
Bomb can proudly say he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in almost 20 years. After Bomb sobered up, he eventually joined a Vietnam Veterans motorcycle club in 1996. He continued his travels on his motorcycle, but this time with a group of friends. Bomb said partly because of his travels, he was able to meet the love of his life, his wife Sami.
While Bomb was traveling through Oklahoma, he met Sami. The pair instantly hit it off and knew they were in love.
“I don’t know where I would be without her,” said Bomb. “If I never got sober, I wouldn’t have ever gotten a chance to be with her because she won’t have anything to do with drunks.”
In less than a year, Sami moved from Oklahoma to stay with Bomb. At the time, Bomb stayed at either a cousin’s or friend’s garages. Three years later, the couple got married in Paduka, Ky.
“We had always figured we wouldn’t get married, but it was beneficial for us to (get married),” said Bomb. “We were always married in our hearts, but unless it’s legal, Sami wouldn’t be able to get my benefits.”
Regardless of the couple was married on paper or not, Bomb says Sami is his life.
“Sami gives me a reason to live and she’s given me a family,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Sami, I would still be running.”
A PERMANENT ADDRESS
After the couple got married, they decided they wanted to move into a house.
“We were staying at my cousin’s garage between Malcom and Montezuma. It was a large motorcycle garage, but you couldn’t make a home out of it,” said Bomb.
Bomb and Sami decided to look in Brooklyn for a home. It didn’t take long to find their home. They looked at one house and knew it was the one. “I love living in Brooklyn,” said Bomb. “I have an established spot, a real address. It feels good.”
And now that Bomb has finally settled down in a permanent spot, he reconnected with his family.
“Sami has got me involved with my family again,” he said. Bomb has brothers and sisters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Marengo, Steam Boat Rock and Chino, Calif.
Bomb discovered his love of gardening and lawnscaping while at his Brooklyn home. He and his neighbor work together on Bomb and Sami’s garden and Bomb built the deck and landscaped the backyard.
“This yard was completely different before we moved in,” he said. “I really enjoy my life here.”
A far cry from his days as a young soldier in a foreign land and lone wanderer, Bomb said he finally has it all.
“I have Sami, I have children and grandkids (from Sami’s first marriage), a home and my name in stone,” he said.
“I never thought I would have my name in stone, but now, my family will be able to walk by (on the Veterans Trail) and see my name.”
UPDATED July 14, 2009 1:09 PM