Holland, Michigan resident, and Vietnam War veteran Laurence Heckel, 75, takes readers back in time with his life story and early career in the United States Army.
While attending college in the late ’60s, Laurence became employed with the Heinz factory in Ohio. “I started working as the garbage man, but when I dropped out of college for one semester, I immediately got a draft notice in the mail,” Laurence said. Testing out of the average scores, he was quickly promoted to a secret organization. “They wanted me to join the Army Security Agency (ASA) with top security clearance as a traffic analyst. With that role, I would have to join for four years instead of the draft, which was only two. I hadn’t met my wife yet, so I enlisted in the four-year ASA assignment.”
Fate would have it; before his deployment, Laurence would meet the love of his life, Pam. “I knew instantly. To me, it was love at first sight. She always told me it was the same for her, but my recollection was I had to work hard to get her.” He said, laughing.
Laurence would spend the next several months away from his new bride, managing the Ditty Boppers (morse code operators), collecting information that his team would piece together. He often had to alert the National Security Agency if there would be a possible launch. “My son was born when I was stationed in Turkey. I bonded with my son in the post office when they sent me pictures, but I didn’t get to meet him until he was six months old. They would have permitted me to stay stateside for the birth, but then I knew I would be shipped off to Vietnam. If I continued my duties in Turkey, I would get to stay stationed there. It was a heartbreaking decision.” Laurence said.
Eventually, Laurence’s family was able to join him in Turkey. The Heckel family lived downtown with locals for the next two years. Once his time in Turkey was served, they headed back to the states to grow their family and start a new chapter.
Heinz Career & Family
After being discharged from the Army, Laurence returned to work for the Heinz factory. Transferring into production, he moved up the ranks very quickly from starting as a sanitation worker to running shifts during tomato season. Eventually, he was offered several promotions at different Heinz factories that required the Heckel family to relocate throughout the Midwest.
Pam and Laurence decided to expand their family in the mid-’70s when their second child Amanda was born. “She was just the sweetest baby you’ve ever seen,” Laurence said. “Unfortunately, this is where I admit that cancer has been a part of my life for much too long. When Amanda was only three years old, she was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma and passed shortly after. She was every doctor’s favorite and would light up the room.”
After losing their daughter, Pam and Laurence focused on their healing journey together and felt their grief brought them closer together. He received another offer to move to Holland, Michigan, to be a production manager at the local factory owned by Heinz in 1984. It was a new start of planting down roots as a family for the first time since their daughter’s passing.
Life in Holland
With their grief came faith. After years of being active in the Holland community, the Heckels had big plans. “We decided to start a new church.” Said, Laurence. “We participated in building Good Shepard Lutheran Church with the founders. Pam was the inspiration and drive behind the idea for us to help.”
Life in Holland was spent on the big lake catching salmon, going to their church, and spending quality time together as a family. Their son Wade was growing up and starting to have a family of his own when Pam developed Thyroid cancer in 1999. After undergoing treatment, she was cancer free and able to see her grandchildren enjoy their childhood. “When her cancer came back years later, it developed quickly. She passed in March 2012. While that was 10+ years ago, I’m still learning to live alone without her.” Laurence said.
After helping his loved ones through cancer, Laurence faced his own health battle with Lymphoma this past year. “I’ve seen what cancer does to people; I’ve been through it with my daughter and wife. I haven’t had much fear with my diagnosis.” Laurence said confidently. “The staff here (Cancer & Hematology Centers of Western Michigan) are just wonderful. I find everyone on staff to be delightful. With my experience in different hospitals, I know the difference.”
While Laurence has lived a life full of adventure and love, his proudest moments have been with his son Wade and his children. “Ian, Paige, and Connor are my three grandchildren; gosh, they are something else. They all take care of me and include me a lot. I love to cook for them too. I still say that Wade is my best buddy; they are my lifeline.” Laurence said with a smile. “My son and I still fish together. I’m his first mate.”
Laurence feels pride not only for his family but for his service to the United States Army. “I’m proud to be a Veteran. I’m proud to see that my generation is no longer reluctant to put the hat on and talk to people.”
CHCWM wishes Laurence and all those that have served a Happy Veterans Day. Thank you for your service!
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