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Vietnam veteran emerges from the woods

Stanislaw “Stan” Radkowski finally came in from the cold.

The 79-year-old retired Air Force and Army veteran had been living on the edge of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, camping in the woods, because his pension and Social Security benefits couldn’t cover a motel.

For Radkowski, camping behind McGuire Air Force Base “made a lot of sense. It was what I could afford. I started camping out about 10 years ago in a sleeping bag, with a poncho, in case it rained.”

Radkowski — kidnapped as a child by the Nazis, naturalized American citizen, Vietnam veteran, and Air Force and U.S. civil-service retiree — had been chronically homeless since the early 2000s. After a year of talking with him and gaining his trust, the Veterans Multi-Service Center in Philadelphia was able to house him with the cooperation of the Veterans Affairs Department.

In November, Radkowski signed an apartment lease in the Wrightstown, N.J., area. The Veterans Multi-Service Center also worked to help him reconnect with his children, whom he had not seen in more than 30 years.

Radkowski was born in 1938 or 1939 in Poland, and was just a few years old when Hitler’s Lebensborn program swept him into the chaos of war. Under Lebensborn, the Nazis kidnapped children considered “racially pure” in countries they occupied.

Some were already orphans; others were literally stolen from their parents’ arms by the Nazis. Thousands were transferred to Lebensborn centers to be “Germanized,” up to 100,000 from Poland alone. Radkowski was given a German name, Fritz Radke, and placed with an Austrian adoptive family.

By 1945, when the Allies tried to relocate kidnapped Lebensborn children, Radkowski couldn’t even remember his birth parents. He and thousands of others drifted around refugee camps in Italy and Spain, until he was old enough at 18 to emigrate to America in 1957.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” he said.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving for three years, and then served in the Air Force for 16 years, first stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines and then in Thailand during the Vietnam War. He met and married a Filipina and had two children. “She wasn’t interested in moving back with me to the U.S.,” he said, and they separated.

By the time Radkowski retired from the civil service in the 1980s, he was living in and out of motels in New Jersey, uninterested in veterans’ housing benefits.

In 2016, the Veterans Multi-Service Center provided funds to 992 veterans or veteran households to either prevent homelessness or put veterans back in homes. Outreach workers Javier Galindo and Douglas Woods heard about Radkowski through the grapevine.

“He didn’t want any help. He’s highly independent, so it took us about a year to get him to even tell us his name and show us his military ID,” Galindo said.

Still, it took some convincing. Radkowski’s health was failing, and he finally agreed to allow the VMC to help him.

“Doug and Javier found me a place,” Radkowski said recently, smiling at the two men, also veterans. The VA and the VMC connected him with doctors for routine health care and several surgical procedures. And finally, in November, the VMC helped him move into permanent housing in Burlington County. He’s the leaseholder fora own two-bedroom unit.

The VMC also found his adult children, Stan Jr. and Paz.

“My children didn’t know I was living in the woods,” Radkowski said. They had no idea of their father’s history, or if he was even alive. They live in California and traveled here for a weeklong stay earlier this year.

Radkowski visits the military base often. He can do his grocery shopping there, but there’s also a library on base where he spends a lot of time.

“Yes, I’ve had a fascinating life,” he said. “But really, I’ve had too much change in my life.”

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© 2017 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.