Bobby Trexler volunteers during Vietnam; returns on later mission

Published 5:45 am Sunday, November 19, 2023

By KC Smith

Cooleemee Correspondent

COOLEEMEE – Bobby Gene Trexler enlisted in the Navy in 1971 at the age of 18. The Vietnam War was still going on.

Years later, he volunteered again – this time to be part of a mission to find remains of Americans missing since that war.

His first duty station was Pensacola, Fla. Parachute riggers was his career field training but he ended up learning survival training on water and land.

While on his last summer of duty, he went to his favorite place to eat and hear music.  It was there he met his now wife, Karen Trexler.

Karen was celebrating her birthday. She asked her family to take her there based on an advertisement on television.

They met, fell in love, got married and lived in Bobby’s homeplace in Cooleemee. He worked for Fiber for two years, GE for two years and then reenlisted in the Air Force.

He liked being in the military, and reenlisting in the Navy would have put too many days in between seeing his wife, so he chose the Air Force.

They headed to Spokane, Wash, Fairchild Base.

Working on KC135 planes and B52 bombers kept him busy for two years and he then he requested a transfer to Alaska.

He headed that way without his wife and son, Mark. He expected to be separated for six months, but he found a house in two weeks. Bobby worked there four years in Air Force active duty on KC135s and RC135s.

A brand new guard unit was being started from scratch there, and they asked for volunteers. In 1998, after applying to the Air Force National Guard at the same base, he walked just down the street to start his new journey of chief national guard.  He was manager of two shops for 17 years.

Bobby had several opportunities to do TDY, temporary duty assignments.

He went to a conference in Korea for a week which introduced him to mortuary affairs.  An active duty guy talked about a mission he had been on.

Bobby was interested in being on a mission but thought the chances of a National Guardsman being accepted was low or impossible.  But the work of the new National Guard unit put them on a higher prestige level and the next year Bobby was accepted on a mission.

Mortuary affairs teams search for crash sites, soldier’s life support or anything that can be found to confirm where the demise of the soldier occurred.

Finding a boot with a tiny bone in it can be crucial findings for families searching for love ones.

Most sites are from 25-30 years ago so finding the actual site wasn’t easy.  Civilians were superstitious and they would bury the soldiers.  So often the villagers would lead them to the site.   

These missions employ villagers to help dig trenches or sift through the dirt looking for remains. These missions last about 30 days each.

The containers that were filled with assortment of foods were packed by each person of the mission to last them 30 days.

Thanksgiving was celebrated on one mission by collecting foods from the containers. Cookies were smashed up for a crust and chocolate and vanilla puddings made a pie.

The mission group tried their best to dig a hole for the turkey to be roasted but the village people said they were doing it all wrong.  Two holes were dug, one for the foil wrapped turkey and the fire in the other hole.  The tunnel connected the two holes and thus a nice cooked turkey was enjoyed by all.

Buckets of water containers were lined up for each member to take a shower by pouring water on top of themselves. One pot took care of toilet needs. Camping in tents kept their bodies dry in case of rain and thankfully they had cots instead of the ground for a bed.

Bobby firmly says: “These missions were the best memories I have of military career.  It was very rewarding.”

Not many people scurry to be part of these missions.  The conditions can be quite challenging like being in Vietnam during a monsoon in the hot summer with mosquitos.

Every dig of the shovel  and every shake of the  sifter prove time and again it was worth every second.

Thank you Bobby for your service and for your dedication to our county and the soldiers whom never returned home.

Please contact me at or 336.250.1133. I would love to hear from you.