A lonely Vietnam veteran’s unlikely path to community

Lee Sledzianowski

Lee Sledzianowski 1949–2006

A small-town boy from New York State, Lee joined the army in 1968 and arrived in Vietnam the next year. He extended his tour three times and lived through unspeakable things. Within months of returning home he married his high-school girlfriend; they had a daughter and son. By 1989 he had been divorced by his wife, forbidden to see his children, and was on suicide watch in the Ulster County Jail. That Christmas he received a card from Dorothy, a ten-year-old girl at nearby Woodcrest Bruderhof whose class had decided to send cards and cookies to the jail inmates.

His thank-you note to her (“I always tried to be a courteous person,” he said later) turned into a correspondence with Dorothy and her family. After he was released from jail, Lee visited Woodcrest and later moved into a small apartment on the edge of the community. He never became a member, but for over fifteen years he was part of the Woodcrest community. He joined Dorothy’s family for meals every week. He worked as a groundskeeper and good-naturedly managed the community’s wastewater treatment plant. Eventually he started joining the community for special occasions. Because his own daughter had loved horses, he organized and paid for riding lessons for over thirty community children. Although not conventionally religious, he had a deep admiration for Native Americans’ connection to the created world: “Mother Nature is my god.” He liked to tell about the beauty of Vietnam and its people.

Lee never stopped suffering from his war experiences. “Can I ever forgive myself for what I have done? No.” In 1996 he wrote, “Since I came to the community, life has been worth living again. The letters of a ten-year-old have given me years I would not have had. Still, there are hard times. Part of my soul is missing.”

A week before he died unexpectedly of a stroke, Lee told Dorothy’s father, Marcus, “My life has been a complete waste.” Marcus disputes that:

Since I came to the community, life has been worth living again. The letters of a ten-year-old have given me years I would not have had.

I often said, “Lee, think about the future. Put something in the bank for when you can no longer work.” But he’d refuse. He paid for riding lessons. He bought flowers and gifts for people. He left huge tips for tired waitresses in diners. He gave away money to neighbors who were in trouble. When he died, his bank account was empty, even though a few months before he’d gotten quite a bit of money from a workers’ compensation payment. It had all been given to a family that was struggling to feed their children.

Hundreds of people came to Lee’s funeral at the Woodcrest burial ground. Standing around his grave, the community sang a Dakota hymn.

Dakota Hymn

Many and great, O God, are thy things,
Maker of earth and sky.
Thy hands have set the heavens with stars;
Thy fingers spread the mountains and plains.
Lo, at thy word the waters were formed;
Deep seas obey thy voice.

Grant unto us communion with thee,
Thou star-abiding one.
Come unto us, and dwell with us.
With thee are found the gifts of life.
Bless us with life that has no end,
Eternal life with thee.


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