When retired Army Sgt. Maj. Kenneth E. Stumpf passed away at his home in Tomah, Wis., on April 23, his daughter Jobi (Stumpf) Spolum didn’t think about how the world lost a military hero — a Medal of Honor recipient. To her, she lost her dad.
Over his 77 years of life, Stumpf was best known to most for his actions on April 25, 1967, in Vietnam, where at that time as a squad leader, Staff Sgt. Stumpf earned the U.S. military’s highest honor — the Medal of Honor — for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.”
Spolum is the second of Stumpf’s three children. She has an older brother, Scott, and a younger brother, Adrian. She said growing up she didn’t realize just how important the Medal of Honor was until she got older.
“To be honest, when I was a kid, it was about him being so good at racquetball,” Spolum said. “He had been on the all-Army team for racquetball. So it was always about what a good athlete he was.
“And then it was when I got older when I learned just how significant the Medal of Honor was,” Spolum said. “When we started going to conventions for Medal of Honor recipients and related events is when it really started to click.”
But at home, Stumpf was dad.
“He and I had a special relationship,” Spolum said.
Stumpf was drafted into the Army in 1965 and served two years with one of those years in Vietnam where he earned the Medal of Honor. He then left the Army and was discharged in 1967 and moved back to his home town of Menasha, Wis. Then he went back to work in a paper mill he’d worked in before the Army.
Not long after, in 1968, Stumpf rejoined the Army on Dec. 16, 1968, but right before that he married his life partner, Dorothy Guralski, at St. Mary Catholic Church in Menasha on Dec. 7, 1968.
“He was always proud of that day,” Spolum said. “He’d always say he got married on Pearl Harbor Day in 1968.”
Pearl Harbor Day, of course, is the remembrance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, that propelled the United States into World War II.
Now married and back in the Army, Stumpf embarked on another 27 years of military service where he retired from Fort McCoy on Sept. 30, 1994. He and Dorothy had children Scott in 1969, Jobi in 1972, and Adrian in 1976.
“Ken’s strength came from being married (for 46 years) to Dorothy,” his family obituary states. “She was the glue that kept their family close.”
And after getting married, Stumpf completed two more tours in Vietnam between 1969 and 1971. He then served in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind.; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Fort Ord, Calif.; Fort Carson, Colo.; several locations in Germany; Fort Sheridan, Ill.; and finally Fort McCoy.
In 2000, Stumpf was interviewed by James McIntosh for an item now stored in the data collection of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison. Stumpf recalled his time in Vietnam, learning about the Medal of Honor, and more. The transcript of the interview can be found by searching “Stumpf” at https://wisvetsmuseum.catalogaccess.com.
“When I had left Vietnam, I knew I was recommended for the Medal of Honor,” Stumpf said in the interview six years after he retired from the Army. “But when I left Vietnam, I left Vietnam. I gained a hell of a lot of experience over there. … I think I became a better person. I became more dedicated to mission.
“I just … did what I felt was the right thing to do, and I did my duty,” Stumpf said. “One day in my life of the first two years (in the Army) … I was probably the best Soldier that I could possibly be. I was the best person I could possibly be. You know, go in there and get those guys out … and the best warrior I could possibly be. That one five-, six-, seven-hour period, I was a good Soldier and the best I could be.”
Spolum said she thinks her dad always tried to be the best Soldier he could be and in turn the best husband and father he could be.
“He always believed in mentoring others,” Spolum said. “When he retired from the Army, he went to work for the county helping inmates complete community service. And then later he worked with a program that helped incarcerated youth. He was kind of like a drill sergeant for them. I remember the graduations where the cadets would come up to him and tell him what an inspiration he was. That’s the kind of man he was.”
Throughout his Army career, besides being a Soldier first, Stumpf worked much of his career in the administrative career field in various functions. Spolum recalls also when her dad served as a first sergeant.
“I remember when my dad was first sergeant for the postal detachment in Germany,” Spolum said. “We had a lot of single Soldiers who lived there, and they would come over to visit and have dinner with us. They were like aunts and uncles to me. … My dad loved helping and taking care of people.”
In a retirement story written by former Fort McCoy Public Affairs Specialist Rob Shuette in the Oct. 7, 1994, edition of the Triad newspaper, Stumpf said himself that taking care of Soldiers was something he took very seriously.
“I have deep respect for enlisted Soldiers; that’s what soldiering is all about,” he said. “My main mission was to take care of the Soldiers. ‘Caring’ and ‘compassion’ are two key words.”
And Soldiers responded to Stumpf — not just for his accomplishments but also because he was a “Soldier’s Soldier.”
I had the honor to meet Sgt. Maj. Stumpf a couple times,” said retired Sgt. 1st Class Jaime Herrera, who now serves in an Army civilian position with the Army Reserve Equal Opportunity Office at Fort McCoy. “I had lunch with him and some other noncommissioned officers a few years back. As we sipped beer and told stories, he asked me if I’ve ever seen combat. I said, ‘Yes, I’ve been deployed several times.’
“He looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘I asked if you’ve ever seen combat,’” Herrera said. “I replied, ‘Yes sergeant major — a lot, and I was wounded once. I was given the Purple Heart, but I’m not a fan. It just means they almost got me.’ He takes a sip and puts his hand on my shoulder and says, ‘No son. It means they tried their f…ing hardest and failed.’ Then he gave me his coin, and I’ll never forget that.”
Spolum also said her dad appreciated everyone who served. She said it isn’t just military members but everyone, including government civilian service, and more. It’s his inspiration in part that encouraged her to serve the last 22 years as an award-winning Army government civilian employee at Fort McCoy.
“I find to be an honor to serve the people who have served my family my entire life,” Spolum said. “That’s what my dad believed, and that’s something our family will carry on with in his memory.”
The National Medal of Honor Museum paid a special tribute to Stumpf. In the story about him at https://mohmuseum.org/medal_of_honor/kenneth-stumpf, it shows some words by Stumpf that might best have exemplified his character.
“I stayed in the military for twenty-nine years and I never forgot where I came from and that’s why I took care of those people underneath me,” Stumpf said in the museum article honoring him. “Because if I don’t, who will?”
“Throughout his life, Ken Stumpf remained dedicated to his fellow Vietnam veterans, hearkening back to the time he had spent with them in action.
“Vietnam made me strong,” he said in the article. “I mean, for the guys that got killed, I’m strong for them.”
“And just as he had in Vietnam, where, “I laughed a lot, I laughed a lot to keep people cool,” Stumpf — or “Stumpy,” as his men called him — always displayed his great sense of humor as he shared stories about his time in the service.”
Stumpf will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery alongside his wife Dorothy at a date yet to be determined.