A mother’s worst nightmare: February 25, 1991, Vivian Drees’ son, Tony, was critically injured in the worst scud missile attack of Operation Desert Storm. This very special mom talks about it as they celebrate “25 Years Alive Day!”
MOTHERS OF THE GULF WAR: VIVIAN DREES
A Mother’s Perspective
By Bobbe White
If we are lucky in life, we will meet someone as impactful as Vivian Drees, a woman with a heart as big as Montana, make that, North Dakota, which is still bigger than most hearts. As a child, Vivian watched her parents take in babies, years before the term “foster” parents became a silent badge of honor. Years later, Vivian and husband, John, found themselves following in the same footsteps as her parents. John was an Army Reservist, a farmer and a solid man, whom Vivian met in June 1970. Their love and commitment for each other grew quickly, they were engaged by August and married in November 1970. They knew they wanted a family and soon, they found kids entering their lives. Oh boy, did kids enter their lives! Altogether, John and Vivian had thirty children, including one of their own, a step parent adoption, and of 30 foster children, they were able to adopt five.
Each time a new child came into their home, the Drees explained to the children, “A new foster child is arriving soon. The child might have to return, at some point, to his real or adoptive home.” Their biological son, Matthew, watched children come and go. One day, he asked Vivian, “When do I have to go back to my “real” home?” They’d never explained to Matt that he WAS at his forever home. She was touched and proud that, biologically or foster, the children were equally loved. “Honestly,” Vivian stated, “I can fit every one of these children into my heart, even the ones who are damaged.” And damaged, some were.
One foster child, Tony, came to the Drees family at age 13. He was a runaway Air Force base boy, from an abusive home. Tony’s mother loved her husband more than her children. In the past Tony called his stepfather, “Stepmonster.” Tony felt angry, cheated and thrown-away. Vivian recalls, “On his 15th birthday, Tony asked to call his birth mother. I was apprehensive about the reception he’d receive.” Knowing her headstrong Tony wouldn’t give up until he was batted away from his mom again, Vivian stayed close during that call. “I’d hoped my instinct was wrong,” but her keen, motherly, sixth sense rarely failed. Everything John and Vivian had done to build Tony up was torn down by a short conversation with his birth mother on the phone, much like the day she said in open court, “I don’t want him, you take him!” Vivian’s sense was correct.
John and Vivian were inherent teachers; he taught expertise through modeling mastery, work ethic and critical thinking. As Tony’s frustrations and anger mounted, John instructed Tony to remove a tree stump in the field. Armed with an axe, Tony assaulted the stump for hours upon days. John helped Tony learn valuable coping skills through physical work to ease mental angst. John taught in his classroom, “The Shop”, where he shared his ideology about being a father, a provider and a community servant. Vivian’s invaluable life lessons were taught by always being present, something she was able to do as a stay-at-home mom. She taught her children, “The most important lesson in life is to realize that things aren’t fair.” It is only then, that a person can move on.
As the years progressed, Tony and his high school buddies started finding trouble as some teenage boys commonly do. During his junior year, some boys robbed a Coca-Cola machine; Tony claimed responsibility. The summer before senior year, Tony stole the family car; a diesel station wagon. The transmission blew and Tony became “Foster Care Scared” and ran away. His parents needed the insurance money to fix the car, so charges had to be filed against Tony. Vivian reluctantly agreed with recommendation of the social worker and Tony’s attorney that he be sent to the State Industrial School for Boys for ninety days. The Drees hoped this punishment would help Tony recognize his choices and behavior. The program worked. Tony went on to have a positive senior year and graduated at the age of 17. After graduation, Tony attended the University of North Dakota (UND) and then enlisted in the US Army for four years, serving in West Germany. When he returned to North Dakota, he returned to school at UND to excel in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) as a student, an officers candidate, and student athlete, while finishing two years as an Inactive Reservist.
At the age of 22, Tony then requested to be adopted; an unusual request for a 22-year-old. His wish was granted and Tony finally had a real, forever home with the Drees family.
In January 1991, during Desert Storm, Tony received orders to join the fighting in the Gulf War. A week into Tony’s deployment, Vivian – again- had a cold, sixth sense feeling for her son. The evening news on February 25, 1991 confirmed her fears: a U.S. barracks was hit by a scud missile in one of the deadliest attacks of the Gulf War. She witnessed the chaos unfold on T.V., and knew it was bad, in general, and for Tony, personally. The Drees waited five long and agonizing days before hearing from Tony, who’d suffered life-threatening wounds: shattered, shrapnel filled femur and the backs of both his legs blown off. After the first of 58 surgeries, Tony was transported from Saudi Arabia to Germany for his recovery. A nurse asked Tony what he needed, “My mom,” he answered. He was running out of courage, he was abroad, alone and critically injured. This request activated the American Red Cross to get involved and within days, Vivian headed to Germany. As fate would have it, Vivian was met at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, by one of her foster daughter’s younger brothers who was stationed there. With this effort to accommodate her, Vivian realized that the kindness, which she’d so generously and selflessly given to her foster children, was being returned to her as life had come full circle in her foster parenting journey.
Tony was further transported to Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, MD with Vivian by his side. His high-profile injuries found The U.S. President, top military leaders, nationally publicized journalists at his bedside, and the mother-son photo appeared in People Magazine. During Tony’s long and arduous recovery, Vivian was his fiercest cheerleader.
Upon Tony’s hospital discharge and Medical Retirement from the Army in March of 1992, Tony returned to North Dakota, bringing with him, the constant companion of war pain, both physical and mental challenges. Tony’s recovery of body and mind would need to begin by building strength. A topic, to which Tony is no stranger even today, he keeps his body tuned, as any serious athlete does. Vivian and John were the yin and yang to his recovery. She was the compassionate, soft-spoken figure; John was the strong, quiet component. They both served as the “buoys” to a man drowning in a sea of pain.
Vivian is more than proud of Tony’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) management. His negative experiences are now channeled into a positive career of helping others heal and succeed. A number of John and Vivian’s children came to them damaged, some succeed, some struggle perpetually. Their unwavering support for each of their children remains a constant vigilant journey. Those two were quite a team. Now, by visiting her parents in Canada, seven children, seventeen grandchildren and one great grandchild, Vivian is trying fill a huge void left by John’s death last year. Without question, losing John feels so unfair to Vivian, but she knows the lesson; some things just aren’t fair. Serving as a dedicated Military Mom, a community servant and an advocate for foster children, she also knows she can fit the growing family into her home and her heart, and that is what keeps her going.
When asked directly about her bond with Tony she replies,”I am proud he is my son, I love him.”