A Troubled Veteran's Eye-Opening Encounter

A stranger did more than save this Vietnam Vet from a bad snowstorm. 

Posted in , Sep 25, 2019

A Troubled Veteran's Eye-Opening Encounter

I stuck my thumb out into the biting wind. I was somewhere in Utah, trying to hitch a ride as the daylight faded. It was bitterly cold and beginning to snow. I had on a coat and the combat boots I’d worn in Vietnam. But not much else to protect me from the late spring snowstorm.

It was 1970. I’d served a tour of duty in Vietnam and come home in 1966 with plans to help my dad with our family farm in Minnesota. Maybe go to college and find a career. Instead...I drifted. No reason. Just a vague sense of unease.

Vietnam had left me with nightmares. I was in an artillery unit, the so-called kings of battle. Sometimes our maps were wrong and we ended up shelling our own guys. Once, we accidentally hit a South Vietnamese militiaman. He died alongside his pregnant wife.

I tried to blot out the horrible memories with alcohol and marijuana. Then I tried to outrun the thoughts by moving around. My nine older siblings lived all over the U.S., and I hitched from place to place, finding work on farms or in construction. California, North Dakota, Alaska, Missouri, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada. Wherever I was, I wanted to be somewhere else.

Now I was broke and attempting to get back to Minnesota to see my dad before he died. Can’t remember why I thought it was a good idea to walk along this empty highway in a snowstorm. There’s a lot from that time I don’t remember well.

I’d been walking all day. I’m sure I looked awful. Long, scraggly hair and beard. Dirty clothes. Probably smelled like whatever I’d drunk the night before. I hadn’t eaten all day.

Evening descended. The last bit of dim light vanished. I could barely see. The snow picked up, falling in sheets, whipping my face. It was getting colder by the minute. Was I going to freeze to death on this lonely highway? After all I’d survived?

I wasn’t a praying man. Not since Vietnam. Sure, I’d tossed up the same foxhole prayers other guys did. But prayers didn’t save the people I’d accidentally shelled. Prayers didn’t take away the nightmares.

And yet here, in the middle of the blizzard, prayers were all I had left. Shivering violently, I prayed for God’s help.

Light sliced the darkness, illuminating the swirling flakes of snow. I turned and saw a pair of headlights approaching. A truck. I waved frantically with both arms.

Brakes squealed and the transmission shuddered as the truck slowed. It loomed out of the snow and rumbled past, stopping with a hiss ahead of me. I jogged to catch up, and the cab’s passenger door swung open.

I clambered up and a voice said, “Hi there.”

The driver was a big guy, a real trucker, rough-looking. That voice, though, put me right at ease. It was calm, reassuring. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had spoken to me like that.

“Where you headed?” the driver asked, offering me a sandwich and a thermos of coffee before putting the big rig in gear.

“Minnesota,” I said, unwrapping the sandwich and wolfing it down. The cab was warm and dry, and for a minute I just sat there, eating that sandwich and drinking the coffee.

“Thank you,” I said at last.

“No problem, buddy. I can take you at least 50 miles before I have to turn south. You planning to keep hitching? Not a great night for it.”

In fact, I had no idea what I was going to do next. “I’m kind of broke,” I said. “I’m trying to get back home to the family farm. My dad’s not doing well.”

The trucker nodded and gave me a quick appraising look.

“I don’t want to preach or anything,” he said after a silence. “But I used to be in your shoes. Served in Korea. Came home drinking, smoking, drifting. One day I was driving drunk and I hit someone. The guy lived, but he was disabled.”

His words hung in the air. Without taking his eyes from the road, the trucker continued: “That horrible accident made me take a long, hard look at myself. And the man I hit? He was something special. He forgave me, and we became friends. I quit the drinking. Got a steady job and gave the guy a part of every paycheck I earned. Still do.”

His story struck home big-time. It was like he had lived my life and was telling me I could change.

I didn’t go into my story much as we drove on. It didn’t seem as if I had to. The driver’s turnoff was in a small town. He insisted I take enough money for a bus ticket to Minnesota. Before I got out onto the icy road, the driver cleared his throat.

“Funny thing,” he said. “When I saw it was going to snow today, I got all fixed to stop for the night at the last town back. But something told me to keep going. Good thing I did, huh?”

I nodded.

“Like I said, I don’t want to preach, but I believe great things can happen if you believe and pray for what you need,” he added. “Good luck to you, son.”

All I could say was “Thanks.” I closed the passenger-side door to the cab and watched the truck rumble away until it disappeared into the snowy darkness.

Something changed that night. It wasn’t immediate. But that ride was the turning point for me. I made it to the farm. Dad lived a few more years, and I stayed with him, helping him and getting my life back together. I stopped drinking, went to college, found work. I married, had kids and got treatment for my PTSD.

Through the years, anytime I’ve felt down, I just think of that truck appearing out of the night. A gentle voice speaks the words that saved me then and keep saving me now: “Great things can happen if you believe.”

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