My daughter recently posted this comment below on her Facebook page with a photograph of us taken in Sedona, Arizona by Aaron, my Son-in-Law:
Thank You for your service just doesn’t seem enough. Can’t imagine what you went through in the war but grateful you made it home. Maybe someday you will write a book about it. Many veterans never share their full story, and I can understand how painful it would be to relive it. However, the younger generation aka your granddaughters would greatly benefit from reading about that time in your life. Many veterans pass never sharing their amazing stories. I hope someday you share yours. ❤️ Love you Dad
This story is for my daughter, Kelly, and my grandchildren Courtney, Brittney, and Sydney. I will share more Vietnam stories in future posts on this blog and publish them later in a book as part of my general autobiography, primarily for my daughter and grandchildren.
In May 1968, the Army drafted me out of the college where I was the editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper. I knew there was no doubt that I would go to Vietnam in one capacity or another.
My younger years included recruitment into the White Fence gang which was one of the most violent gangs in East Los Angeles, California. Because of this experience and several others, I felt that I could use my ‘street smarts’ to handle Vietnam better than some. Therefore, I would not think of avoiding the draft and having someone else going in my place. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for what happened to them.
After basic training, I went to Fort Sam Houston known colloquially as “Fort Sam,” in San Antonio Texas where I went through training which included combat medic and laboratory instruction.
While at Fort Sam Houston I was having challenges with both of my legs especially my knees from a serious motorcycle accident I had six months before drafted into the Army. In fact, a letter from my doctor who patched me up after the accident insisted that I bring his recommendation that I was not physically fit for military service because of the motorcycle accident, to the initial Army induction exam. Nonetheless, May 1968 was one of the biggest years in drafting people. Regardless of the letter, I found myself drafted and in the Army.
An instructor observed my favoring my legs during the physically demanding basic training at Fort Ord near Monterey, California and he recommended that I speak to an orthopedic surgeon for an examination. Although I had some reservations about being examined by an army surgeon I kept my appointment at Brooke Army Medical Center.
After the examination, the orthopedic surgeon said that I needed to have surgery on both legs and if I did not I could expect to be unable to walk within a few years. He said that he was certain about his diagnosis and my prognosis. In the meantime, he recommended I go to physical therapy I waited for the surgery. Since I was struggling with both of my legs, I made an appointment to begin physical therapy after my medical classes at the end of each day.
On that first day of physical therapy, I walked into an immense room filled with diverse gym equipment and countless soldiers including physical therapists and doctors. I signed in and received instruction on using the equipment. I was told that a training regimen would be tailored to my needs by a physical therapist assigned to me. He said that the physical therapy would continue before and after my surgery.
I thought that if the physical therapy eases my pain and increase my stability and flexibility, it was worth the effort even though experience with the first machines were more challenging than I expected. After a while, the physical therapist suggested that I take a brief break.
I looked around the room really for the first time to see what the other people were doing. It was then that I found myself impacted by my observations. Without exception, every guy I saw was missing at least one limb and many soldiers were missing two or more limbs. I just knew that they must have returned from Vietnam as a wounded warrior. I sat on a bench watching each of them as they went through their routines guided firmly by a physical therapist. It was clear that each of them was in great pain and yet they persevered.
I did not remain in the physical therapy room for my entire appointment. When I compared my challenges with my legs with these brave soldiers who returned from combat with much greater injuries and losses than mine, I just didn’t feel right about being in the same room. The poignant images of that day shall remain with me a lifetime.
I never went back to physical therapy. A few days later I was told to report to the orthopedic surgeon who had examined my legs and recommended surgery. Since his office was at a different location in the hospital, I got lost. What I did find was a medical ward filled with soldiers from Vietnam lying in bed without any limbs. I didn’t even know there was such a hospital ward and that image will also remain with me forever.
These experiences brought the severity of the war in Vietnam to reality and my appreciation that I could contribute something in the medical field to help soldiers when I inevitably was sent to Vietnam. I did not try to find the orthopedic surgeon’s office and never did make another appointment. Gradually my legs became stronger.
When I did arrive in Vietnam my way of handling what I saw was to run as much as 10 miles in our compound whenever possible rather than indulging in the easily accessible drugs and liquor.
Over the years after my return from Vietnam, I did not have problems with my legs. In fact, when I lived in the greater Phoenix Arizona area I was running as much as 16 miles on the canals every other day.
It wasn’t until the last few months when I’ve had an injury with my left leg that challenged my daily mobile activities. Perhaps, the initial motorcycle accident predisposed my leg to this recent injury. I met with two orthopedic surgeons in Prescott, Arizona after getting MRI’s and X-rays. One doctor recommended surgery and the other prescribed physical therapy. Once again, I have declined both options.
The left leg injury stimulated the powerful recall of my experiences at Fort Sam and the Brooke Army Medical Center resulting in sharing this story on my blog.
thanks for sharing, Stephen. More please!
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