My Cousin Jean: Sgt. Jean Kraus

 

My Cousin Jean

by Lt. Col. Janis Nark, USAR (Ret.)

JEAN MASON KRAUS is honored on Panel 8W, Row 86 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

 

Jean Mason Kraus was the youngest of three exceptional boys who were my favorite cousins.  They were teenagers back then: fun, handsome, intelligent, full of life.  I was six years younger and rarely, if ever, noticed by them.

Every summer when I was young, we would pile into the Ford and drive from Detroit to Grandma and Grandpa Mason’s farm in Novelty, Missouri.  That constituted our official summer vacation trip.

When we first started that tradition, water at the farm was drawn from the well, and the toilet was through the chicken yard along a wooden-planked path to the outhouse. We thought this was great adventure. There were cows, pigs, horses and chickens. The food on our dining table came from all but the horses, and the rest came from the fields and my grandmother’s garden out back.  She used the Farmer’s Almanac and planted by the moon. She grew the sweetest sweet corn and the biggest, ripest, reddest, most delicious tomatoes in the world.

My favorite relatives lived near Lake of the Ozarks, and it was always a time of great excitement and fun when we could go visit them.  Aunt Marie was the mother of the three outstanding young men: my cousins Jean, Bill and Sam.  She was short, pudgy, outgoing, warm and funny. She personified love like no one I’d ever known in my short life. They had a homemade pond with a raft in the middle where we’d all go swimming in those peaceful days of the 1950s.

It was a special treat to go to Lake of the Ozarks. We would go boating with our relatives on the lake, as the old 8mm movies from that time show us doing over and over again. In one of those movies, I’m sitting in the back of the boat next to cousin Jean as it’s leaving the dock.  I’m trailing my fingers in the water, imagining that I look very much like Marilyn Monroe. What I look like is a very geeky kid with a frizzy home perm.  He is oblivious to me, and I am madly in love with him.

Jean went on to college and became a teacher and an incredibly talented artist. He painted beautiful, tranquil and deeply emotional pieces in oils and watercolors. The ones I saw were always scenes of nature, of rivers, of the land he so loved.

When he was drafted, it never occurred to him not to go. He didn’t choose to be an officer, though that was offered.  No, he would just go, do his duty and then come home to his life of teaching and painting. He wasn’t meant to be a soldier; he was a soft, kind and gentle spirit. The Army made him a grunt.

I had joined the Army in nursing school and was at my first duty station, Madigan General Hospital at Ft Lewis, Washington, in 1970.  We were busy of course, with busloads of wounded Vietnam vets coming into our wards daily.  I was young and naïve, but getting older every day.

My parents came to visit from Michigan, and I enjoyed remembering and feeling what life was like before the Army and the war.  Then they told me that cousin Jean had died in Vietnam the week before. All the report said was that he died instantly when he stepped on a booby trap.

My heart broke into a million pieces. One more beautiful soul was gone.

I know his paintings live on. I know that those children whose lives he touched, even briefly, are better for knowing him.

I miss him still.

 

LT. COL. JANIS NARK, USAR (Ret.) served as a registered nurse in the U.S. Army, including a tour in Vietnam. Later in the Army Reserves, she was recalled to active duty for nine months during Desert Storm. She retired after 26 years. She is a member VVMF’s board of directors and is the vice chair of the Education Center at The Wall Advisory Board.