'I cried for a half-hour at the wall': Geneva Vietnam vet had to heal himself before helping others

 
 
Updated 12/27/2018 12:22 PM
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  • Dennis Enneking, here with his wife, Leann, and son, Joe, is front and center at many Geneva American Legion Post activities these days. He organizes the annual Turkey Raffle, visits schools and leads the color guard. But the Vietnam veteran needed to heal first before others inspired him to help others.

      Dennis Enneking, here with his wife, Leann, and son, Joe, is front and center at many Geneva American Legion Post activities these days. He organizes the annual Turkey Raffle, visits schools and leads the color guard. But the Vietnam veteran needed to heal first before others inspired him to help others. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Swing by Geneva's American Legion Post 75 and there's a good chance you will see Dennis Enneking.

The 72-year-old Geneva man and Vietnam veteran who fought in the Battle of Khe Sahn is front-and-center in the color guard, visits area schools, works at the Legion's beer tent at Swedish Days and is chief organizer of the annual Turkey Raffle, which raises money to help veterans in need.

"We need more members, that's really critical," he said. "If you served your country, we need all the help we can get."

Legion post commander Brian Noonan said Enneking is "one of the guys you can always count on. He's dedicated a lot of time to the post. His whole family has."

But Enneking didn't always volunteer.

It took decades to help the Detroit native gain perspective on his service, heal and open up to talk about his experience before he could ultimately help others.

As a teen, Enneking's parents sent him to seminary school. Halfway through his fourth year, he decided the priesthood wasn't for him and he lost his deferment status. He was drafted and thrust into the Marine Corps.

After his two-year tour ended, Enneking remembers arriving at an airport in San Francisco and being called "baby killer" and having red liquid splashed on him. He wanted to ditch his Marine uniform and grow his hair long to not be a target of disdain.

One big step in his healing journey began while visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. in 1986.

Like many veterans, he left behind something that had meaning: a photo of him and fellow soldiers, many who were killed, and all of his service medals. "I cried for a half-hour at the wall. It took away all the grief and anger I had and suffering I felt by leaving something at the wall," he recalled.

The visit also put him on the track of a greater understanding of himself and his experience, and he credits his wife of 20 years, Leann, for standing by him and supporting him.

After Enneking got married in 1998, his father-in-law, who was a World War II veteran, urged him to join the Geneva American Legion. Once he was part of the group, Leann and then-Post Commander, the late Rick Rosenstein, urged Enneking to visit schools.

"The Marine in me came out. If you're going to do something, do it better than anyone else," he said, noting Rosenstein made him senior vice commander. "All of a sudden, I thought 'I can do this. It's not that bad.'"

Enneking and Leann organize the Legion's annual Turkey raffle and he leads its color guard at public events and funerals for local veterans. Business and civic leaders know the couple and their son, Joe, 19, who also volunteers.

Enneking visits Geneva schools during the year. Talks with elementary school-aged kids are pretty basic, but queries get more pointed at the middle and high school levels.

"I don't do the talking, I let them ask questions," he said, noting one of the most common inquiries is how many people he killed in the war.

"We don't talk about that," Enneking said. Instead, he focuses on the lives of his Marine brothers fighting on his left and right.

In 2016, Enneking was diagnosed with prostate cancer caused by his exposure to Agent Orange during the war. He credits the Kane County Veterans Assistance Commission for advocating on his behalf to get disability benefits from the federal Veterans Affairs.

After the cancer spread to his lymph nodes, he had radiation treatment and the last 6-month hormone treatment is scheduled for today.

"I survived Vietnam," Enneking said. "They didn't get me and cancer's not going to get me. I'm going to fight -- by helping others."

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