On a humid April evening in 1969, as I led my six-man squad into position for that night’s ambush roughly one kilometer, or “click,” from the Mekong River and another click in a different direction from the big 9th Infantry Division basecamp at Dong Tam, a treelike we were passing erupted with the roar of AK-47 rifles, clattering away not fifty feet from us, piercing the darkness around and between us with eerie greenish tracer rounds.
But just before the firing began, one of the four or so Vietcong soldiers hiding in the underbrush had thrown a grenade — or possibly I tripped a booby trap — in either case sending a piece of shrapnel the size and heft of a buffalo head nickel to lodge in my right leg, splitting into the fibula bone like an axe chopping into a hardwood stick and knocking me to the ground, suddenly safe behind a two-foot-high rice paddy dike as the first enemy bullets flew.
Already Good Fortune was smiling on me.
Because the shrapnel cut a nerve in my leg — or possibly because I was so amped up on adrenaline — I felt little pain and so was able to bandage my wound and begin returning fire. Thirty feet further from the treelike, my five squadmates had gotten down safely behind another paddy dike and were firing over my head into the Vietcong positions. After I had gathered my wits and made sure I still had all my body parts, I also began firing my M-16 — until it jammed — and then my 45 automatic at the AK muzzle flashes, hoping to prevent any particularly adventuresome Vietcong from crawling out and finishing the job with me. More good fortune.
Several hours later, when a second medivac helicopter had swooped in out of the dark sky, scooped me up, and deposited me at the hospital in Dong Tam, I hopped inside on my good leg, waving the 45 overhead for balance as even more good fortune came my way. (The first chopper flew off without me after receiving fire from another group of Vietcong some distance from us.)
Before tugging the shrapnel from my fibula, the good doctor explained that my wound was bad enough to get me out of combat for the foreseeable future and likely out of Vietnam altogether, without causing permanent crippling damage, which turned out, these forty-five years later, to be precisely correct.
Like Father, Like Son
In World War II, leading his company of combat engineers across a river into Aachen, Germany, my Dad had been wounded in almost exactly the same spot on his right leg, 24 years earlier. As we compared scars at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital outside Denver, where I was to spend several months recuperating, my Dad and I were drawn closer together by our matching scars. — more blessings.
Then once I mustered out and had my leg examined at the VA hospital in Minneapolis, the monthly disability checks started arriving, at first maybe just $20 or $40 a month — I forget exactly how much — but now up to $251, for my 20% disability, calculated half for the healthy scar and half because I can’t feel parts of my leg and foot.
Decades ago, in the years just after Vietnam, I thought of the checks as my badly needed beer money, but now as Sharon and I try to cobble together a business around LA Progressive, the money comes in handy indeed, good fortune deposited directly into my checking account the first of every month.
Sometimes, not often, I have second thoughts about taking the money, especially when I remember all the amputees — many of them double and triple amputees — on the orthopaedic ward where I stayed those months in Denver. I remember especially Cruz Mejia, who had lost one leg below the knee and was so anxious to get home to his wife and kids somewhere out here in California that they practically had to tie him down in the bed next to mine.
Eventually, after some years of fits and starts at Columbia and the University of Minnesota, I graduated from college on the GI bill and later bought a condo with my ex-wife using a VA Loan, though neither of those were directly tied to the humid night within hailing distance of the mighty Mekong.
Now, though, my daughter attends college tuition-free at the University of California, Riverside, thanks to my disability rating, Purple Heart, and honorable discharge, a benefit I discovered completely by luck.
A decade or more ago at my old job in publishing, we were breaking in a new editor, gently hazing a lovely young lady named Kathy, teasing her for the fact that she had gone to college way out in the desert someplace, San Bernardino maybe. It was just a handy excuse fr giving her the needle.
“Well, at least I went to college for free!” she exclaimed at last, before explaining that a California law provides tuition-free education at any public university, state college, or community college in the state for the children of disabled Vietnam veterans.
You can bet I called the VA and then CalVets office in Los Angeles before the day was out, learning that the law was still in place and that I would almost certainly qualify, even though I had been a resident of Minnesota — or maybe New York — but certainly not California when I served in Vietnam.
In the years that we’ve known of this benefit, I have heard not one word from any school counselor or veterans group or government publication about this program. It’s been my blessing to clue in a couple other Vietnam vets who got started late on having children as I did and have been able to sign up as well. Thanks, Kathy, for that blessing.
So what does any of this have to do with socialized medicine?
Well, for most of my adult life, I have been covered by Kaiser healthcare coverage, first during the decade I worked in aerospace and for the two decades in publishing. Before that in my 20s, when I drove a cab, tended bar, and worked construction around going to college, I had no coverage — same for the couple years I stepped aside in my mid-30s to run a halfway house for homeless alcoholics and drug addicts — but in the back of my head, I knew I probably could get care at a VA hospital if push came to shove.
Also in the back of my head — based on news reports and especially Ron Kovic’s “Born on the Fourth of July” — was the thought that care at the VA would be rugged indeed. Still, it would be better than nothing.
Then, I retired a year ago and, to my surprise, got turned down for continuing care at Kaiser, where I had paid monthly for 30 years or more without ever taking more than a case of the sniffles to them. (True, Kaiser doctors had performed life-saving surgery during my ex-wife’s ectopic pregnancy.) Shortly later Kaiser came back with a different offer, but it was an expensive one and my mood had soured.
Also, in recent years, I had heard a different story about VA care, a better story, from other veterans and their families. So I checked it out and signed up online, thinking I would just keep the coverage in my back pocket until I turn 65 later this year and can go back to Kaiser under Medicare.
But recently, after encouragement from friends in the veterans community, not-so-gentle prodding from my loving wife, and persuasion from a month-long hacking cough, I visited the VA Outpatient Center downtown, next to the Little Toyko stop on the Gold Line, where I got a cost-free, same-day appointment.
I had no real beef with care at Kaiser. Occasionally, I felt like a piece of data to be processed in their system and, while the doctors seemed more than competent, you could sense they were on the clock, meeting time-in-motion goals. But I trusted their care and just rode with the inconveniences.
And I have nothing but glowing praise for the Army nurses and doctors and medics who cared for me on my sojourn from hospitals in Dong Tam to Saigon to Cam Rahn Bay to Tokyo to San Francisco’s Letterman Hospital and finally to Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, a long time ago.
But I must say that the people at that Downtown Los Angeles VA facility — from the security guard, to the pharmacist, to the lab tech who drew my blood, to the intake nurse, to the on-call physician — were nothing but helpful, kind, actually interested in what was going on with me. I thought, what is this, Canada?
Now all I had was a persistent cough and cold, but a couple years ago a similar condition blossomed into double pneumonia that my wife and daughter would like to tell you almost killed me, so the compassionate care I received was yet another blessing.
Watch out, this compassionate, cost-free care through the Veterans Administration might just turn my head on this socialized medicine business.
Editor, LA Progressive