By Thomas Coakley
Recognizing Veterans Day, I would like to share a war story. It begins and ends in a hospital like many often-untold war stories do. I was at the end of six weeks of recovery in an Army hospital in Japan from wounds suffered in Vietnam. It was early morning, and I was lying on a stretcher on the floor with many other soldiers, waiting to be boarded onto the United States Air Force medical transport jet headed back to the United States. I recall feeling happy knowing this day of return had finally arrived. We were loaded on the stretchers vertically with about 18 inches of space separating us from the stretcher above and that is how we would remain for the next 18 hours or so of flight time. It sounds worse than I recall it, but I imagine we were sedated much of the time.
The flight was through Alaska, arriving at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey bordering on Fort Dix. Coincidentally, that was where I had my Basic and Advanced Infantry Training. Often during our training, Drill Sergeant Lawrence, would look up at these huge planes as they were landing, saying “Look at that plane gentlemen, (he was surprisingly respectful for a drill sergeant) it is filled with your brothers returning from Vietnam, many alive and wounded and others that did not make it. That is why we train today.” How ironic to have heard that over and over and now I was on that very same route.
The next step of the trip was a helicopter medivac from McGuire to Valley Forge Army Hospital, about 50 miles away. It seems like I arrived in the middle of the night. The ward was dark, everyone was sleeping, and I settled into a waiting bed, falling asleep immediately. Morning arrived and I awoke to my new surroundings, seeing this world for the first time. I looked to my left to take in one of the most important visions of my lifetime. There in the bed next to me was a younger (about age 19) handsome soldier, missing one leg at the hip, the second leg missing from only inches below the hip, and his right arm missing from only inches below the shoulder. He was doing one arm pull-ups on his overhead bedframe as part of his morning exercise routine. This shocking vision of courage and determination was beyond inspiration for me.
Look at that plane gentlemen, it is filled with your brothers returning from Vietnam, many alive and wounded and others that did not make it. That is why we train today.
This Veteran’s story did not really end in a hospital. It has remained with me for the 50 plus years since, as a constant reminder to live life well and to live life for others less fortunate than ourselves. I believe we are all here to act in both roles, to be inspired by the actions of others, and to be inspiring to others with our own actions, and we do not want to miss those opportunities, either to be inspired by others, or, to inspire by our own example — a good Veterans Day thought.
Amputee Coalition is committed to supporting veteran amputees with education, support, advocacy, and information about further limb loss prevention. We offer many supports for veterans, family and friends, and care partners, which include peer visits with an experienced, trained Certified Peer Visitor; well-being support and community resources, including tools to help you self-evaluate your mental well-being; and through our partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, we help veterans find rehabilitation and prosthetic services. We also offer our Community Connections website resource, where you can enter your ZIP code to find resources closest to you. For more information, visit www.amputee-coalition.org/the-amputee-coalition-honors-u-s-veterans-for-their-service or call our National Limb Loss Resource Center at 888‑267‑5669 and press 1 to speak with a specialist.