He lost his legs in Vietnam but his commander lost his life. Would he ever be able to forgive himself?
Posted in , Dec 19, 2018
I wheeled myself down the walkway, following the rise of the black granite wall. Connie, my wife, walked beside me. My eyes fixed on the names, almost 60,000 of them. Each one a memorial to a soldier killed in the Vietnam War, the war I’d fought in as a Marine 30 years before. The one that took my legs.
I’d put off coming here for more than a decade. Connie had urged me to make the trip. But I wasn’t sure I could face all those tragic names without asking myself the question that haunted me: Why had I lived while so many others died?
I’d grown up in a poor Oklahoma farm family, the eighteenth of 21 children. My mother had instilled in me my faith. The last thing I heard every night was her prayers. But I couldn’t see any future for myself in tiny Beggs. One day in my junior year of high school, I skipped classes and hitchhiked to Tulsa. Outside a recruiting office, I saw a poster of Marines in their dress blues. I saw myself marching out of Beggs. A life with purpose. What I wanted. I was 17. My father had to sign for me.
I loved being a Marine, the discipline, the sense of mission, being part of a tight team. Out of boot camp, I was assigned to a platoon sent to Hawaii. Our commander was 1st Lt. James Mitchell.
I was 19 by then, the lieutenant only six years older. But he had a determination and a maturity I aspired to have. He inspired us. He pushed us high school dropouts to take night classes during the 14 months we were stationed in Hawaii. Thanks to him, I got my GED. My confidence soared. I was later promoted to corporal.
In May of 1965, we deployed to Vietnam. Lieutenant Mitchell still made time for each of us. He asked about our families. Our future plans. He told us about his wife, Jan, in California and the baby they were expecting. When word came that they’d had a daughter and named her Erin, the whole platoon cheered.
Our platoon was charged with protecting the Chu Lai airfield. Every day, we patrolled the bush that surrounded us. It could be nerve-racking, especially the threat of hidden land mines.
On August 31, we went on patrol. I was on point, the tip of the spear. By 9:30 a.m., we’d been patrolling for 90 minutes in 110-degree heat. We came to a hedgerow. I put my leg through an opening, then jumped back. Below my foot was a mine, beside a hole in the ground. We’d disrupted someone in the midst of planting it.
I called for the lieutenant. He and a corporal arced around me, coming in on the other side of the hedge. A sergeant charged up from the rear and squeezed past. I stepped back—
BOOM! I’d triggered a different, buried mine. It shot up beneath my legs and went off with a deafening explosion, blasting shrapnel directly at Lieutenant Mitchell and the corporal. I landed on my back on the other side of the hedge, nearly 20 feet away.
I heard the lieutenant yelling to set up a perimeter and call for choppers. The air smelled of gunpowder and burning flesh. I looked down. Jagged bones stuck out from where my feet should have been.
I tried to remember the Twenty- Third Psalm, but the words jumbled in my mind. I begged God not to let me die, not here, not now.
A corpsman rushed to my side, his expression telling me this was serious. He whipped off his belt and another corpsman’s and tightened tourniquets on my legs. In the distance, someone screamed, “He’s dying!” I heard choppers. Someone put me on a poncho and loaded me in along with other injured Marines. We lifted off.
I was shipped to five different hospitals for surgeries before landing at the Naval Hospital Oakland, in California. My new life was coming into focus, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. What good was a man without legs? Why had I lived? Most men with my wounds bled to death on the battlefield or in transit. Yet I had survived, one of the military’s first bilateral above-the-knee amputees since the Korean War. Some distinction. It was at Oakland that I learned Lieutenant Mitchell had been killed.
Why had God spared me? The lieutenant had a wife and a baby daughter. I couldn’t stop thinking of the agony they must be going through. I considered writing them a letter, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to add to their sorrow.
I tried not to think about it. Pushed the whole thing down inside me. Or tried. Just figuring out how I was supposed to go on living was overwhelming. The hospital let me keep a bottle of bourbon. The one thing I could depend on to kill the memories.
A little after Christmas, I awoke bleary-eyed to find a gorgeous USO hostess at my bedside. I rubbed my eyes. “Are you real?” I asked. She just smiled, a dazzling smile. Her name was Connie, and she wasn’t fazed by my missing legs. She stopped by more and more. Her father had been a Navy corpsman. I guessed she had a soft spot for a man in a uniform.
We married six months after meeting and moved to Oklahoma. I went to college for a teaching degree. I’d been fitted for prostheses, but this being the late 1960s they were difficult to use. Mostly I stuck to my wheelchair. On campus there were protests against the war. No one hassled me, but it was clear no one thought of me as a hero. That I could deal with. It was the guilt I felt over being alive that was killing me. I told Connie about the lieutenant, how I felt almost responsible for his death. After all, I was the one who’d stepped on the land mine. Over and over again, she told me it wasn’t my fault. I knew she was trying to make me feel better.
I prayed for healing but found no answers there either. The guilt only got worse. One summer, Connie and I went to California to visit her family. I remembered Lieutenant Mitchell’s widow, Jan, lived in the area. I thought I might check on her and her daughter, Erin, now almost three. I found Jan’s number in the phone book. I stared at that number for what seemed like forever, too scared to lift the receiver.
“Do you want me to dial the number for you?” Connie asked.
“No,” I said. “I can’t.”
I graduated from college but veered away from teaching. I started my own business installing wheelchair lifts into vans. Who better than me? I created a tractor lift for a quadriplegic farmer. I met other disabled people. One day a friend invited me to join a wheelchair basketball team. I’d done well in business, but now I was excelling physically. I loved the competition, the teamwork. It was like being back in the Marines. But the better my life became, the more I felt I didn’t deserve any of it. There was an inverse relationship between my blessings and my guilt.
I was never comfortable talking about Vietnam. Even with Connie. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1982. I told myself I’d make the trip to see the Wall…someday. I was afraid it would be like one massive indictment against my life, almost 60,000 charges. The hardest days were the anniversaries of my injury and Lieutenant Mitchell’s death. Connie gave me my space. I’d brood alone, reliving the moment, how it could have gone differently. I’d think about Jan and Erin, but after so many years it seemed pointless to contact them. Then one day, I realized almost 30 years had gone by since I stepped on that mine. All at once I felt an urgency to make that trip to the Wall. “It’s as if it’s calling me,” I told Connie. I couldn’t explain it.
And so on that next anniversary we’d come. Staring at the rows and rows of names before me, I wondered if I really was ready. I’d worn my dress blues. Slowly I pushed my wheelchair forward. An older couple stood next to the wall, holding each other. The woman rubbed her fingers back and forth over a name on the stone, sobbing. Another man I took for a vet scanned the names until he found one, then covered his eyes and ran down the walkway.
I was looking for panel 2E. I wheeled my way there and gazed up at the names. Then I found it. What I’d traveled so far to see: James M. Mitchell Jr.
Why God? There was still no answer, but losing myself in that sea of names, there was a peace, an understanding, that came over me. I was a kid. It was war. Chaos. I could see I was far from the only vet suffering. I thought of the people I’d helped in my business, how grateful they were. These were all the things Connie had told me, and now I found myself believing them in my heart.
I went home and searched in earnest for Jan. But all my internet queries turned up nothing. I spread the word with Marine buddies that I was looking to talk with her.
Veteran’s Day 1999. Connie answered the phone. “Give me just a minute,” I heard her say. She covered the receiver. “It’s Jan,” she said.
I froze. Memories from a lifetime ago rushed back. I said a prayer and then took the phone. We talked for nearly an hour. Jan had remarried and was living in Arizona. She sounded completely happy and at peace. I told her how much Lieutenant Mitchell meant to me.
“I know how important you guys were to him,” she said. She told me she was writing a book about him, then added that Erin was eager to talk with me and gave me her number.
I talked with both of them over the phone several times, but I wanted to see them in person. In August 2000, Connie and I drove to North Carolina to visit Erin and her family.
She met us at the door, and I saw her father in her. We spent the day talking, but it seemed we were both skirting the reason I’d come. I told her how excited her father had been when she was born, how much the men respected him. But not about the land mine. The day he died. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I told her everything. She looked at me, perplexed. “Eddie, no one blames you. Not me and definitely not Mom. Thank God you survived.” Then she wrapped her arms around me.
It wasn’t Erin or Jan’s forgiveness I needed. I needed to forgive myself.
A year later, soldiers were again being sent in harm’s way, this time in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The news was filled with images of wounded vets coming home, many with amputated limbs. I remembered how there had been no role model for me. I began visiting military hospitals and sharing my story.
One day Connie and I visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. There I saw a mother sitting outside a room, sobbing. “My son is 19, a Marine corporal,” she said. “He lost his legs, and now he won’t leave his room. He wishes he’d died.”
I wheeled myself inside. The corporal stared back at me. In his eyes, I saw myself 41 years earlier. “I don’t really feel like talking,” he said.
“That’s okay. I get it.” I told him what had happened to me. “Your life is just beginning. Don’t give up hope.”
Hope was what kept me alive, a hope buried so deep I didn’t know I had it until I faced the Wall. Until I was finally free from the guilt I felt for something that was never my fault. Things happen in war that we will never understand, like the combat death of a good man with a life ahead of him. We who survive can only understand that God is with us not just in war but in peace.
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