Mary Ann Laier, my mom, grew up in Chicago and attended Marshall High School. My dad, Gene, grew up in Maywood and went to Proviso East High School. After high school, dad joined the Marines and fought in World War II. After the war, mom and dad worked together at City National Bank downtown. They worked in different departments, but every once in a while they ran into each other. One day my dad decided to ask my mom out for a date. Apparently they hit it off. They eventually got married and lived in Maywood with my dad’s mom.
I was their first child, born in Oak Park Hospital, a little over a year after they were married They decided to move us to Hammond, Indiana where dad went to work delivering milk for Borden’s. This is where I remember my first recollection of life. We lived in a quiet neighborhood in a ranch house with a fill-up pool in the back yard. Back then, milk got delivered door-to-door in glass bottles and your order was left in an insulated metal box on the front stoop. You would place your order for eggs, cheese, and dad's favorite - buttermilk. How he could drink that stuff, I will never know. Somewhere along the way I acquired a brother, Michael, when I was 2 years old.
We moved into a duplex on west Monroe Street in Chicago for a couple of years. I attended Immaculate Conception Grade School for kindergarten and first and second grades. We then moved to LaGrange, Illinois when I was about 9 years old. My dad went to work at LaGrange State Bank as an Assistant Cashier. He went to night school downtown at the American Institute of Banking in order to get ahead. He would walk to work and I would meet him down the block when he walked home for lunch. Dad was a quick learner and was eventually training people to do his job as well as that of others. He later got promoted to Cashier.
Dad was finally able to afford a new car. He bought a 1956 Chevrolet Belair. We would go for rides on the weekends for root beer in Maywood and the drive-in movie theater. He also took us to downtown Wheaton for popcorn. Apparently they didn’t have popcorn in LaGrange. Mike and I would sit in the back seat eating popcorn on the way home, and as I was later reminded on a regular basis, not all of the popcorn made into our big mouths. Dad was always complaining that he had to vacuum out the back seat. Couple of weeks later, it was back to Wheaton for more popcorn. It was a viscous cycle.
Dad moved up in the banking business and assumed the position of Vice-president of the Bank of Clarendon Hills. So we then moved from LaGrange to an unincorporated area south of town known as Marion Hills in January of 1959. Dad had also become a contractor to save money and have all of the say in the design and building of our very first new home. It was outside of the village limits and all of the roads were gravel. We had to walk four blocks to ride the bus into town so that we could attend Notre Dame Parochial School.
Dad got real involved with the neighborhood and the politics and before you know it, he and two other guys succeeded in getting Marion Hills chartered into the City known as Darien on December 13, 1960.
My summers were mostly spent mowing the lawn and playing baseball. Baseball, of course, being the past-time of choice. When I say I played baseball, I mean every spring, summer, and fall day of the week, every daylight hour of every day. My brother Mike and I would either be playing catch with each other or with dad after dinner until it got so dark that we couldn’t see the ball anymore.
Mike and I lived for the game. We would play wiffle ball in the back yard and hard ball at one of two of the neighbor’s yards – didn’t want to break our own windows. We did, however, break the neighbor’s windows on a regular basis – it was in right field. Down the street there was a vacant lot full of tall, thick weeds and rocks. Mike and I would spend weeks trying to clear a site for a game. We called or visited every kid in the neighborhood in hopes of forming two teams so that we could have a real game. We had aspirations of forming a small league, but I guess there wasn’t the same amount of interest with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood.
Dad, along with some of the other dads in the neighborhood, helped to form a Little League franchise. We spent many hours helping to build a field raking and picking up all the stones - it was all part of the game.
Living in a remote area and having to be bussed to a Catholic grade school in another town made it difficult socially. In high school, I didn’t know anyone and I was shy to begin with, making it socially challenging. Almost all of the other kids there grew up together and went to the same school together in Hinsdale. Kids from my area were looked down on as a lower class.
There certainly was a big difference in social status. While they bought their lunches in the cafeteria, I worked in the cafeteria for my lunch. While they shopped for clothes in the men’s stores in downtown Hinsdale, I bought mine at Sears. Other kids from rich families got big allowances (probably for doing nothing), had nice clothes, new bikes (I got my mom’s bike passed down from when she was a kid). My brother and I would mow the lawn, take out the garbage, and shovel snow for our allowances – then spent it all either chasing down the street after the ice cream man or on baseball cards.
If this sounds like I was jealous, I certainly was not. I would not have traded it for the world. My mom and dad both worked – my dad had two jobs in order to provide for the family and send us to a Catholic school. I think this made me appreciate things more since they weren’t handed to me.
I will never, ever, forget one day my dad was sitting in his recliner in the living room and called my brother and me in to the room. He reached behind the chair and pulled out three brand new baseball mitts – one for each of us. There was a special bond we shared when the three of us would go out and play catch in the back yard. I always wished that I had been able to share some of those times with my two sons.
My dad helped to build the house that I was raised in. He did most of the inside finish work himself. He was an up-and-coming successful banker (then Vice-President of the Bank of Clarendon Hills) – how did he know how to do all of that stuff?
My dad always had at least one hobby going at any one time. He built electronics stuff from Heathkit (later known as Radio Shack), like a ham radio and all kinds of test equipment. He took guitar lessons and practiced every night after dinner. Then he learned to play the organ and practiced every night after dinner. My dad loved music. We even had a HI-FI. He would play Errol Gardner, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn. He would play Bob Newhart comedy albums. My mom listened to Mantovani. To this day whenever I hear Bob Newhart’s voice, it takes me back to those days. I also have Mantovani loaded on my iPod.
My dad was always putzing around the basement. He loved to make things out of wood. I would spend hours down there just watching. Those were good times.
I was about 11 years old when my mother gave birth to my sister, Kathy. My dad worked during the day and my mom slept during the day because she worked downtown at night. Well, did that ever put a crimp in this 11 year old’s social life. Did I mention that I liked to play baseball?
When Mike and I were not making ice cream out of snow or making candles by melting crayons in a frying pan on the stove, I would be changing diapers or feeding the little girl. I potty trained her, taught her to feed herself, and taught her to walk – all before her first birthday. We cruised along for four years and mom and dad presented us with yet another sister, Cindy. How this happened, I’ll never know with those day/night jobs going on.
As a family, we all played games together, went to drive-in movies, went camping (OK, not so memorable). On Saturday night we would drive into town for the Sunday papers and pick up a pizza so that we could come home and sit and watch Have Gun Will Travel and then Gunsmoke. On Sunday nights it would be Lawrence Welk, Ed Sullivan, and then Bonanza after one of mom’s infamous casseroles.
There were three bedrooms upstairs and the middle room was quite small, but that served as our TV room. We had a black and white set, dad had his thread-bare rocker-recliner handed down from my grandmother, and room for a small couch. We would sit up there and watch the White Sox games at night a lot. That is until my sisters were born. Then the room became the nursery. Painted pink at first, then purple.
When I got to high school, I took a liking to wood shop and drafting class. I’m sure I got that from hanging around my dad in the basement. I got very good grades in my drafting classes. When I graduated form high school, my dad suggested that I apply for a job at Western Electric. I schlepped my drafting samples, went for an interview, and was hired. Seventeen years old and I was working downtown at a full-time job doing what I enjoyed. Kept that job for 35 years before finally retiring. Good advice Dad.
As I mentioned previously, I didn’t have a lot of friends during my school years. I was kind of a loner. When I wasn’t playing baseball, I liked to read Sherlock Holmes. My dad had a collection and I read it cover to cover. I wasn’t a brain by any means. My grades certainly reflected that - I dreaded the days that the report cards came out. But I did like to read mysteries. When I was in
high school I somehow became involved with what was known as ‘The Book Nook’. I worked there after school and sold/traded used paperbacks to students. Looking back on it, I think it was just a nerd’s club in disguise.
My mom and I spent a lot of time together when I was growing up. She was the one who helped me with my homework. I remember her helping me with my math one time. It was when that ‘new math’ came out. I don’t remember there being a problem with the ‘old math’. Either way, it was all quiet baffling to me. I didn’t know an integral from a Weber grill. I will never forget once when I asked mom to check my math homework and she sat there scratching her head. She blurted out, “This is all back ass-wards!” She didn’t know what the correct answer was, she just knew I didn’t have it.
Mom was also my Cub Scout Den Mother. Our den always had some project to work on. Once, I decided to build a display that included a covered wagon like those used on a wagon train. I started out with a cigar box, glued on some cardboard wheels, and used some pipe cleaners and part of a cut up sheet for the cover. Well, the wheels sagged and the top was so lopsided that it was difficult to imagine just what it was I was trying to build. Of course I had to bring it in to school the next day. Mom and I got so frustrated working on that stupid thing, I don’t think she ever helped me on a scout project after. Come to think of it, I think I was on my own with my math homework, too.
Mom liked to shop. Her and her sister, my Aunt Sis, would shop and shop and shop. They would be gone all day at the mall. I didn’t know what it was that she shopped for at the time, but she was a pro. I don’t think dad knew either. He would always just grumble at the end of the month when it came time to pay the credit card bills.
After my mom died, dad went through mom’s clothes closet and dresser and only then did he discover what she spent all that time and money buying. She had sweaters, blouses, and slacks – most of them identical and still having their price tag on them. I guess she didn’t shop for need - she shopped for the habit.
While I was attending Notre Dame Grade School, I decided to become an altar boy. I don’t remember exactly why I wanted to do this. It must have gotten me out of having to do something else, I don’t know. I was raised a Catholic and attended Catholic grade school and
went to Marion Hills Seminary (later called St. Mary’s) every Sunday for Mass. I became an altar boy there, as well. I would serve morning Masses at the school church and Sundays at St. Mary’s. I must have really gotten into it because I decided I wanted to become a priest. To this day I can’t believe this, but it’s true. I applied at Quigley Seminary and went and took the admissions test. And passed! But I chickened out. Phew! I later learned that they closed the school down. There must have been an investigation and found out they thought I might be coming.
Mike and I used to caddy at the golf course during the summer when we weren’t playing baseball. We would set our alarms for 6:00 a.m. and ride our bikes over to Ruth Lake Country Club. At first, we were the new kids and had to pay our dues. This meant waiting until everyone else had been assigned their golfer. It also meant that more than likely we would get assigned to a foursome of women. I’m not being chauvinistic here when I say we would have preferred to not be assigned women golfers. Typically a round of golf with men lasts about 41⁄2 hours. With women it was more like 6 hours. Plus we had to work harder. They did not hit the ball quiet as far as the men, which meant that we had to stop, drop the golf bag, and select a club a lot more. As we became regulars showing up early every day, we got better assignments. We would head out earlier and carry ‘doubles’. We would be caddying for two golfers at a time. It was a lot more work, but the pay was so much better. On most days, we would be back at the caddy shack by noon or so and head back out for another round. On Mondays when the course was closed, they allowed the caddies to play golf for free. That was a great job. We were making $50 cash a day and free, unlimited golf all day Monday.
Anyway, such was my youth. I would not then, nor would I now, trade it for the world. Aside from grumbling about having to do the chores, I was very fortunate to have been blessed with a very loving family. My dad taught me a lot of things, whether or not either one of us was aware of it at the time. Looking back, my mom wasn’t all that great of a cook. In all fairness, she did have to do some creative menu planning while trying to stretch the grocery budget. Maybe that’s why I’m not a big fan of casseroles. Anyone not having had the opportunity to sample a tuna fish casserole topped with potato chips are among the lucky ones. We always had a clean house and clean clothes, though. She even ironed our socks.
I was drafted into the United States Army in February, 1969. I had just turned 20 age two months prior. I couldn’t drink beer and I couldn’t vote. But, according to Uncle Sam, I was old enough to become a soldier, go off to war, and kill or be killed by other young men my age or younger.
One day shortly after receiving my draft notice, I was downstairs in the basement with dad while he was working on some project or another. He gave me some advice about what to expect in the service. Dad had served in the Marine Corps and fought in WWII, so I was all ears. I don’t recall most of what we talked about, but one bit of advice I know I heeded. He told me that once I left the service I would have the opportunity to attend college under the G.I. Bill. The government would pay for all of my tuition and books as long as I wanted to go to school.
So, my dad drove me to the train station that cold winter’s morning and off I went to report to downtown Chicago at 6:00 a.m. I was soon amongst hundreds of other young, scared boys. We were lined up and told to count off – 1…2…3, 1…2…3…, etc., One's were Marines, two's were Navy, three's were Army. Nobody wanted to be One's – they were going to Vietnam for sure. I had a high school diploma and had some training with 2½ years experience at Western Electric as a draftsman. Surely there was a need for that in Germany.
We spent most of the morning standing in line waiting for orders to report for duty. I was hoping for somewhere close so that I could come home and visit my girlfriend on weekends. I finally got my orders - Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. Never heard of it; couldn’t be that close. Well, at least it had to be warmer than Chicago in February. Turns out it was HOT. Got even hotter in fatigues and combat boots. Couldn’t figure out why a draftsman going to Germany needed combat boots.
Basic Training was just that. All GI – from the incredibly detailed inspections - white gloves to check for dust in the barracks, spit-shined boots, and brass belt buckles so shiny you could use them for shaving. We did calisthenics until it hurt, we ran until we dropped, and performed hundreds of menial tasks. I learned quickly that the best way for it to work was to keep your mouth shut, do as you’re told, mind your own business, and do the best you can. Talk about a change in life-style! But as I look back on those days, and I think most veterans feel the same way, they had a way of shaping you for the rest of your life. You learned discipline and how to get along with others. Back then it was hard to imagine how some of these waste-of-time-and-energy trivial tasks could ever have a bearing on anything you would ever be doing later in life.
My Drill Instructor (DI) introduced himself as Sgt. Sweat. My platoon all thought it was a joke – real funny! Funny it was not. That was his real name as well as his demeanor. There wasn’t much to joke about. That guy did not miss a trick - he was strictly by the book. Every morning prior to mess, he would perform an inspection of the troops. He would walk up and down and harass each and every one of us in one way or another. For some unknown reason, I decided that it would make sense for me to grow my sideburns just a little longer than what the military would have liked. To this day I cannot tell you why I did that. I got away with it for a little while, since I was blond and they weren’t readily apparent. But one day during inspection, Sgt. Sweat decided to single me out and asked me what the heck I was doing. Without going into great detail about my lecture, I was told to get my razor from the barracks and dry shave them off front and center of the entire platoon. Not only was it embarrassing and somewhat painful, I was the one holding up the troops from the chow line. My shaving minutes did not get tacked on to breakfast, they were included in the short amount of time we had to eat. I was not very popular the rest of the day. The next day, right on queue, it was someone else who got the special attention of Sgt. Sweat.
Basic Training lasted for eight weeks and then it was off to Advanced Infantry Training (AIT). It was a short time later that I began to realize that my specialty in the Army was not going to be that as a draftsman – I was destined for the Infantry.
AIT was eight more weeks of the same but with classroom lectures, studying military warfare procedures, more rifle and other weapons training – stuff that a draftsman in Germany could not possibly ever need. I had never fired a weapon prior my induction into the Army and found out that I was a decent shot. I did real well. If only I could have seen the future….
At the end of AIT in June of ‘69, I received my orders to report to Ft. Lewis, Washington on the Fourth of July and prepare to ship off to the Republic of South Vietnam. A bunch of us from Chicago hung out together on the plane and we were served copious amounts of beer. OK – it might have been 3 beers, but we were all like 20 years old. We had a stopover in Honolulu and got to walk around the airport for an hour in our uniforms. I should point out that military personnel at that time were not shown the respect that is now so widely prevalent. Suffice it to say we weren’t babe magnets. We were so young; we couldn’t even stop at the airport bar for a beer. That was my one and only visit to Hawaii.
What seemed like days later, we arrived in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam and we were herded like cattle to the reception station and barracks. My first night there we were heavily mortared. It was a scary welcoming party. Being so far away from home combined with the incoming rounds, made my first night a very difficult one to sleep through. We were to stay at Cam Ranh Bay until our orders came through. This is where I learned about the smell of diesel fuel, outhouses, and the “sh*t burning detail.” Anyone who has ever worked at cleaning a grease trap during KP will remember that as being a good smell compared to the “sh*t burning detail”.
From Cam Ranh Bay, I was flown south to Bien Hoa, the home of the First Cavalry Division. The First Cavalry Division (1st Cav) was composed of eight ground infantry maneuver battalions of infantry, five artillery battalions, three assault helicopter battalions, four support-type battalions, one aerial reconnaissance squadron, one engineer battalion, one signal battalion, and a host of independent specialized companies and detachments. The 1st Cav was the new Air-Mobile unit. They went wherever the action was - and fast. All soldiers assigned to the 1st Cav had to be ready to pick up and go at all times. That is what made the 1st Cav so effective. At its peak, the First Cavalry Division was 20,000+ strong during the Vietnam War.
I was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Division at the Cav’s reception station in Ben Hoa. There was a sense of pride and tradition that came from serving in the 7th Cav because it was the same 7th Cavalry as that of General George Armstrong Custer, only helicopters replaced the horses – Bell UH-1D helicopters, Hueys or Slicks, as they were known to the soldiers.
The 1st Cavalry Division's mission in 1969 was to interdict enemy supplies and soldiers as they crossed into South Vietnam from Cambodia using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Reconnaissance missions were set up to explore and survey enemy territories. What made these missions so dangerous was that no one knew what to expect. Squads would set up ambushes and wait for the enemy to approach. Claymore mines were set up around perimeters waiting to be set off waiting for enemy patrols and 1st Cav Troopers would set them off when North Vietnam Army (NVA) troops entered the kill zone. Search and destroy missions were employed to search for and destroy weapons and NVA troops in South Vietnamese villages.
At the 1st Cav’s Bien Hoa reception camp, the Quartermaster issued me an M-16 rifle along with jungle fatigues, green socks, jungle boots, etc., and I was assigned a bunk in a wooden barracks with screens for windows and surrounded chest high with sandbags. I’d become more familiar with sandbags later in my tour. I was comfortably ensconced in these beautiful quarters for a couple of days, reading, writing letters home, dodging mortar attacks at night, enjoying warm meals and showers (not fully realizing at the time that these things would not be commonplace during the rest of my tour).
I was told not to get used to these luxuries, since my company was due to head out into the depths of the jungle for the next 3 weeks or so. This is where one might ask questions like how many pairs of socks to take, or changes of underwear, or what happens if we get wet, etc.
I was assigned as part of a group, referred to as line replacements. At the time I arrived in-country, the 1st Cav was deep into battle with the enemy. We had suffered many KIAs and that weakened our strategy. The prospect of heading out into the jungle didn’t sound very encouraging to us. Most of us had no idea why we were there in the first place. As a grunt, our view of the war was limited to what was going on directly in front of us. We weren’t being paid to think, we were paid to follow orders and fight the enemy.
I eventually got my orders and was choppered out to a Landing Zone (LZ Jamie) in Tay Ninh Provence. I was now a member of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Division (B/2/7 as it was known). An LZ was simply a clearing cut out in the middle of the jungle to provide a base of operations. The clearing was either created with a bomb known as a “Daisy Cutter” dropped from a helicopter or more often was literally cut out and cleared by Army Engineers with bulldozers. The LZ was used as a support base camp that contained artillery batteries, a mortar platoon, a radar section, a mess tent, a first aid station, a command bunker, showers, and line bunkers covered with sandbags. The purpose of the LZ was to provide a base for the artillery to fire support for the U.S. ground forces in the area. While a Cav Battalion (four line companies and E Company secured the LZ for the artillery, it also provided a base from which infantry troops could patrol. LZ Jamie had two artillery batteries, 105’s and 155’s that fired almost continually 24/7. LZ’s such as Jamie were later renamed. The new terminology was Fire Support Base (FSB), since the term LZ more accurately described a temporary landing zone for the insertion of infantry troops into a specific area via helicopters. Hence, we were now known as FSB Jamie. When troops were inserted into an LZ, the landing or LZ was described as either “hot or red” or “cold or blue”. A hot LZ meant that enemy fire was being taken during the insertion, while a cold or blue LZ meant the absence of resistance (at least for the moment).
Most infantry line companies in Vietnam ran on a basic rotation of 21-24 days out in the field and 3 days back at the LZ. A part of my tour in Vietnam was spent during the monsoon season. It rained constantly for days at a time and yet still reached over 100° every day.
Back then I was as skinny as a rail. I think I weighed around 160 lbs. and I was around 6’ tall. I wasn’t built for grunt work, but most of the guys I served with weren’t either, I guess. When I was in high school I used to caddy at a golf course to earn money during the summer. I would carry two sets of bags, one on each shoulder, for 4 hours or so and come back in for something to eat and head back out for another round. I was beat by the end of the day. Looking back on that experience seemed like a walk in the park compared to what we had to lug around with us all day in the jungle.
Every soldier carried 60-70 pounds of gear. Typically each soldier carried his rifle with 300-400 rounds of ammunition as well as 200 rounds for the squad’s M60 machine gun. We all wore a steel-pot helmet on our head at all times. We wore jungle fatigues with deep pockets for carrying supplies and a flak jacket. In our rucksacks we carried such things as claymore mines, flares, a bayonet, three or four days worth of c-rations (or c-rats, as they were known), a poncho liner (not that I had a poncho), smoke grenades, first aid kit, and any personal items like pen and paper and mail from home. On our web belts we carried 6-8 grenades and two canteens for water. Occasionally I would go out with a .45 automatic pistol, as well.
While out in the jungle we did not wear underwear because of the jungle rot (or crotch rot). This was as prevalent as athlete’s foot in a high school gym. It is caused by a combination of heat and moisture from the tropical climate and made corn starch a valuable commodity. The ever-present smells of cordite, rotting vegetation, blood, and body odor made for a very unpleasant span between showers.
Our typical day in the field began at first light. At that time you could light up a smoke, maybe shave, or grab one of those tiny rolls of TP they pack in your c-ration kit and head for a tree. A light breakfast of c-ration fruit cocktail, pound cake in a can, or maybe some canned scrambled eggs would be breakfast. Sometimes we would take a kool-aid packet (if we were lucky enough to get some in a care package from home), scoop some water from a bomb crater, boil it up, add the kool-aid, and let it cool. We would always add halazone tablets in to purify the dirty water and fight off bacteria.
So, once the breakfast table has been cleared and the dishes put safely into the dishwasher, the assignment for the day was given. We almost always ended up humping the jungle searching for ‘Charlie’ - Charlie being the ‘VC’ – Viet Cong (or Victor Charlie). The point man would led us out first to reconning the area, checking for snipers, booby traps, trip wire, or any strange motion or sounds, etc. The progress was slow, hot, and dangerous. As one might imagine, patrolling is one of the more treacherous assignments for an infantryman.
In the afternoon we would settle down and hit the c-rats again. Maybe some ham and lima beans (“ham and mothers”), some kind of “spam stuff’ called ham, fruit cocktail (by far the most popular), maybe more kool-aid. Every three or four days we would be resupplied by helicopter. This usually meant clean socks, mail, coke and 3.2 beer, oh and ammo. Yum – hot beer and coke. The hot coke was more tolerable than the hot beer, so the trade was usually two beers for one coke. Schlitz was the usual brand with an occasional PBR or Carling Black Label. Back then the cans did not have pop tops, so we had to use church keys (can openers). These were scarce. One day I decided to write a letter to Schlitz and explain our emergency situation to them. Before I knew it I had a package with a gross of church keys. I was very popular for a minute or two while they lasted.
Some guys received care packages from home. Those of us that were lucky enough to get them always shared with others. I never saw any unselfishness. I always had packages coming from mom and dad. They would send film, stationary and envelopes, kool aid, cookies, etc. I also received quite a bit of mail. I felt sorry for those who did not receive any mail. It was tough enough to be where we were and away from our loved ones and not receive correspondence. The supply choppers would arrive and we would all race over to await mail call. It was a huge morale booster to hear your name called. It served as a reminder that you were not forgotten.
There was, unfortunately, another side to this story. Not everyone who received mail was overjoyed. Every once in a while a comrade would receive a “Dear John” letter – a girlfriend back home did not (apparently) love her soldier enough to be patient with his absence and decided to break it off. His girl had run off with “Jody”.
Then it was back out to humping the trail. Trail is a relative term here. Any kind of opening was welcome. Sometimes we were lucky enough to find an open path, but not always. When we were unlucky, which was most of the time, the point man had to use a machete to hack our way through the thick bamboo and elephant grass. Our jungle fatigue shirts were long sleeved and they were always rolled up during the day due to the heat. The combination of the sweat and the cuts from the elephant grass on the face and arms really burned.
While out on patrol we would often encounter movement of some kind. The difficulty was trying to determine whether or not it was just a monkey, a bird, the enemy, or friendlies. We always erred on the side of caution since random firing at any movement would give our position away.
After humping four or five klicks (kilometers, each about .6 miles), we would settle in for the night by setting up a Night Defensive Position (NDP). This meant digging three foot deep two man fighting holes. Once dug in for the night, we enjoyed more delicious culinary treats (c-rats) for the evening meal. We would then take the time before it got dark to write letters home, play some cards, or just kick back and rest. At dusk the sleeves came down to help cut down on the chances of getting a mosquito bite. Those mosquitoes tended to carry malaria. Besides the obvious duties of the squad’s medic, one of his functions was to dispense the malaria pills. We would get one orange pill every Monday morning. This was 500 mg of Chloroquine-Primaquine. We also took a daily white pill, which was 25 mg of Dapsone. These (anti-) malaria pills did not cure malaria, but served to suppress the symptoms. The pills had side effects which included diarrhea, itching, headaches, and vision problems. Some soldiers refused to take them as they figured malaria was preferable to death or injury. At one point, the Division CG put out an order that if any personnel of the First Cavalry Division were diagnosed with malaria, they would be subject to Court Martial.
As dark approached there was a moratorium on smoking – no lights of any kind to tip off the enemy. Off came the boots and the wet socks. Hopefully they would dry out some overnight – if they didn’t get rained on. I had spent plenty of nights sleeping on wet ground during the monsoon season.
Nighttime was when Charlie liked to attack. He knew the area well and had the obvious advantage. Charlie got around very well at night. Most of the mortar attacks and firefights I was involved with came in the wee hours of the night. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were smart little buggers. They knew we were out humping all day and would be dog-tired and off-guard at night. We took turns on guard duty - and this is an area that caused a lot of problems.
The tension was bad enough in Vietnam out in the jungle, but there was an added factor – race. In many cases the ratio was 2-1 blacks to whites. My experience had me believing that a lot of the black population felt that they were unfairly selected for combat more so than the white soldier. I will not debate that issue, as I don’t have any facts to substantiate either way. My only purpose in mentioning this it is to let it be known that the issue was in the air and felt by both black and white soldiers. Guard duty was such an incredible responsibility that lives depended on it. Staying awake for say two hours at a time in the pitch back after humping in 100° heat all day was not easily accomplished. If they were caught severe consequences were in order. But with the combination of nerves, heat, being wet all of the time, being away from home, and the (sometimes) racial tension, it was the cause of much internal fighting. I don’t want to imply that it was prevalent, but it certainly was there.
Night in the jungle was eerie. It was still and quiet, yet full of noise. It was so quiet that the smallest movement of any kind was amplified. You could hear the insects, the birds, the shrieking monkeys and yes, the F.U. lizards. The eeriness of the night with its sounds kept you alert. You squint around and look for your comrades. Muscles tighten. You check to see if your ammo is nearby and ready to re-load. It was a challenge to sort out all of the familiar sounds from one that didn’t belong – that of the enemy. It was probably this tension that tends to make the Vietnam veteran so jumpy sometimes. To this day I cannot be around fireworks. I bury my head in my pillow on the Fourth of July. It invariably brings back scary events.
So, the socks and boots came off and we would sleep. This was an opportunity for scorpions to creep into a soldier’s boot. The first task of the morning was to check the inside of boots for creepy crawlers. In my time out in the jungle, I only encountered one such creepy guy.
After about 3 weeks of this fun, we would head back to the LZ. A shower and an almost real meal was the order of the day. This was the life of an infantryman in a line company for twelve months in Vietnam.
One day after returning from a patrol, my 3-5 (platoon leader) came up to me and told me to pack up everything and get on the chopper to Quan Loi as they were sending me to Sniper School in Bien Hoa. I would be at the First Team Academy for 2-3 weeks. I was selected from our company by my platoon leader, the Company Commander, and the Battalion Commander.
I was teamed up with a guy from Charlie Company - Mike M. from Ohio.
I was issued an M-14 Match Rifle (as opposed to the usual M-16) with a 2-power scope and a $9,000 starlight scope. The M-14 was made by Winchester. The M-14’s we were issued were specially built – only 600 were made. They used special Match ammunition, which was more powerful and accurate than standard issue. The U.S. Army's Rock Island Arsenal converted 1,435 M14NM rifles to XM21 standards (added scope and other accurized components, and later on swapped the wood stock for fiberglass) for fielding in Vietnam in 1969.
Target practice began with targets at 300 meters and progressed to 900 meters (about 1,000 yards - the length of 10 football fields). It turns out I was real good at hitting the target. I was a very good shot all through Basic and AIT. I finished 14th out of 250 at Sniper School, which I find very ironic since I had never fired a weapon prior to being in the army.
At the end of the training there was an event called “record fire”. Sort of like a contest. The top man gets a stripe (promotion). I fired 44 out of 50, firing from 300 and 600 meters without a scope. I came in second and Mike came in third. General E. B. Roberts, the Division Commander, officiated at our graduation. He told us that if we have any trouble just write directly to his chief of staff and he will take immediate action.
As it turns out, the Sniper School was a new program and basically an experiment. The 1st Cav had only 52 snipers and they were watching us very closely. Mike and I were the only two snipers in our battalion and the commanders were not even sure how we would be utilized. They asked us a lot of questions and it seemed that we impressed them with our answers. We were seemingly in control, as the big brass in the rear didn’t know much the program. We began our assignment on LZ Jamie up in the Radar tower. LZ Jamie currently had one sniper (presently out on R and R) who they had used up in the tower. He was a Spec-4 (Corporal) four weeks earlier and was promoted to a Sergeant. He had yet to achieve a kill. I knew it would impress the brass a lot if we could start out with a couple of kills. I figured rank would be fairly easy to make if we did our job.
While I was assigned as a sniper on LZ Jamie, I became friends with two guys in particular, Ken Havens and Lee Dworshak. The concept of making friends in Vietnam is an interesting one. Almost everyone that we were assigned to work with in the field probably felt the same way. We were all young, away from home (many for the first time), scared, and not knowing if we would be coming back home alive. We all depended upon each other to protect our backs. One stupid mistake like coughing or sneezing at the wrong time, lighting a smoke after dark, falling asleep while on guard duty, or failing to notice a trip wire out on patrol, etc., could get one or more fellow soldiers hurt or killed. We all had a common bond in our desire to stay alive and get home in one piece. We ate, slept, fought, laughed, shared letters from home, and cried together 24 hours a day. We became comrades-in-arms. The downside of that was the fear of losing someone that you became close to. It is difficult to try and describe the closeness and the bonds that are formed in war. The fact that you could feel this way toward someone that you, in reality, didn’t know was amazing.
Anyway, I was fortunate to become friends with Lee. Lee was from Los Angeles and was assigned to Echo Company – Radar. Lee was previously with the Recon Platoon of E Company and had spent his first several months in country humping in the jungle just like I did. He, like me, was taken out of the jungle. Instead of sniper school, he went to radar school for three days in Long Binh. His assignment was now E Company Radar Section based on LZ Jamie. My sniper partner, Mike, and I were normally sent out with the regular patrols for the three week missions, and then spent 3-6 days back at the LZ with sniper duty up in the tower at night. The ANPPS5 radar on the tower was used to detect movement on the ground around the outside of the perimeter wire of the LZ. This radar was manned at night to watch the perimeter of the LZ for sappers. Sappers were North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or Viet Cong (VC) demolition experts that infiltrated the base with grenades and satchel charges in their attempt to blow up our artillery pieces. Once my unit began deploying snipers on the LZ, we would take our starlight scopes and take shifts watching the perimeter up on the tower while the radar folks watched their scope at the bottom of the tower.
A little distance from the tower is where the Radar Section lived, ate, and slept. They were a group of five guys and had some extra room for Mike and I to stay. We had a little table and chairs to play cards, read, and write letters. We had a light that was hooked up to a generator that was used to charge the batteries for the radar. Mike, myself, and Ken, also hung out there. We would drink beer and play cards and Monopoly together and occasionally listen to a baseball game by way of Armed Forces Radio if someone had a radio.
The food was so much better on the LZ. I had put on 20 lbs. – I got up to 185. The only bad thing was the rats – they climbed all over us at night when we slept.
One night when I wasn’t assigned to man the tower, I was placed on guard duty on the LZ to watch over about twenty or so body bags that had been brought in that day from the field. They were awaiting transport out the next day. I never could figure out why dead bodies needed guarding.
One day, Mike and I were pulled off to the side and were teamed together with a squad put together for a special mission. We were told to speak to no one and to follow the recon team and to follow their team leader’s instructions. We were headed into Cambodia. I knew at the time that this was not going to be a good thing. As I mentioned earlier, we really didn’t know why were even in South Vietnam, let alone why we couldn’t be in such-and-such place like Cambodia. We just followed orders and kept our mouths shut.
According to the official reports, the US did not enter Cambodia until April 30, 1970 – the year after my tour of duty. The United States and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and attacked the NVA and VC bases and supply lines on that date and stayed for several weeks. This fact, however, has been found to not be entirely true. In fact, it is completely inaccurate. On March 18, 1969 Secretary of Defense Henry Kissinger ordered troops into Cambodia under the name “Operation Breakfast”.
Without being able to go into much detail, the 1st Cav infiltrated Cambodia. From where we were based at LZ Jamie, the Cambodian border wasn’t that far, about 5 klicks. I was a part of a recon team that went in, even though it was against foreign policy or some such “war rule” (another military oxymoron). We were instructed to remove our dog tags and any other form of identification, since we were not supposed to be there. Like, we didn’t look American? Never understood that one.
As a side note regarding dog tags, most soldiers only wore one dog tag around their neck and the other one laced in their boots. You didn’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket in the event of a land mine or some other explosion. You still wanted your body to be identified.
A Sad Day
One of the guys I was hanging around with on the LZ was Ken Havens. He lived on a farm in upstate New York before being drafted. We would play cards and tell stories. Even though I was never out on patrol with him, we became friends. Ken was promised a position in the Radar Section and was waiting for an opening in radar school in Long Binh. In his last letter home, he wrote that he was very excited about that because it meant an end to the daily patrols in the jungle. He would be safer.
At dusk on October 21, 1969, Ken led his squad out on a routine last-light patrol around a quarter-section of the LZ. The squad leader (Sgt. Loren Housh) stayed behind on the LZ to monitor the patrol over the radio. Sgt. Housh only had a few days left in-country and was grooming Ken to take over the squad. Ken was walking point with his radio man (RTO) (Nevin Farnsworth) trailing and four other troops behind that. Several weeks previous Lee Dworshak was the squad RTO and would have been in the second spot carrying the radio but was now assigned to the Radar section. Midway through their patrol Ken detected movement in the nearby jungle. They called in and reported the movement over the radio and were told to terminate the patrol, skirt around the movement so as not to make contact and make their way back in to the LZ as quickly as possible. Ken took a route back in to the LZ that not have been previously planned for them to take. Ken had taken the new re-entry route to avoid any possible contact with the NVA. The fear was that they would run into a much larger force than they could handle with six men. There had been quite a bit of activity around the LZ the last couple of nights and things were pretty hot. On their way in, with Ken walking point, the squad set off a booby trap. It was a claymore mine tied to a trip flare. The US-placed booby trap was designed to detonate one or two claymore mines once the trip flare was set off - instantly. The booby trap had been set up by the line company on the LZ and its location was no doubt unknown to Ken and his squad. The intention of the booby trap was to provide early warning for the LZ during the night in lieu of three man Listening Posts (LPs) which were normally used to detect enemy sappers attempting to crawl into our perimeter.
I was inside the radar hooch playing cards when I heard someone call for a medic. I ran over and grabbed a stretcher (the one I used for a bed) and headed out through the wire with a number of other guys to the woodline. They yelled for more stretchers. I helped carry four troops in. They were just lying in a pile of arms and legs and blood. I helped carry Ken’s body in. I don’t know if he was still alive when we brought him in or not. He had some blood on his face and all over his waist, and I could tell that both of his legs were broken. We set him down in the aid station and they covered him up with a poncho liner. I was later asked to identify the body. Turns out that both Ken and Nevin were killed instantly by the blast while the remainder of the squad survived.
It was just two nights before that I had taught him how to play a new version of double solitaire that I had just learned. We stayed up almost all night playing. We were planning on playing Monopoly when he returned from last-light patrol. I never thought he wouldn’t make it back alive. He was a real good guy and got along with everybody. Ken had just turned 23 years old the day before. It’s usually the real nice guys that got the worst end of the deal. The whole squad got hurt bad. Two guys died and 6 others were seriously wounded.
The next day, my platoon leader asked me if I wanted to escort Ken’s body home if he could get the Colonel’s approval. I told him I didn’t think so – I’d rather not. I was so angry, I felt that if I got all the way back to the states, they would have a hard time trying to get me back. We held a memorial service for him on the LZ, though.
October 21, 2009 marked the 40 year anniversary of Ken Haven’s death.
Two weeks later, on November 4, 1969, Mike and I were sent just outside of the LZ to set up an Observation Post (OP) for the day. We were hidden under a clump of brush. I remember I was reading a letter that I had received from my buddy, Gary’s sister, Diane. We had been corresponding as pen pals while I was in Vietnam. The next thing I knew, I heard automatic gunfire and we were the targets. I don’t remember much after realizing that my right leg had been shot and it was all warm and bloody. I had passed out, but I remember riding on a mule (kind of a flat motorized cart for hauling supplies) back to the aid station on the LZ. I vaguely remember lying on a table, no doubt under the influence of morphine.
I had suffered severe damage to an artery in my right leg and some nerve damage in my right thigh. While in surgery, they took a vein from my left thigh and grafted it to my right thigh to keep circulation going. I had received 18 pints of blood through transfusions that night. They then put me in a cast from my right ankle up to, and around, my waist in order to keep my right leg stabilized. I began running a high fever which eventually got up to 106° and they packed me in ice. They brought in a priest and he administered Holy Communion. I didn’t know what to think.
The next day I had dictated a letter back home to a Red Cross volunteer. I, as well as the Army, wanted my parents to know that I was all right. Later that day I had developed a severe case of gangrene and they had to take my right leg in order to save my life.
Over the next few days I had undergone more surgery and had needed more blood transfusions. Years later I found out by way of researching my military medical records that I had required a total of 35 units of blood during these surgeries. More about this in the “The Illness” chapter.
I spent the next few weeks at a hospital in Cu Chi. Someone brought in my stuff from the radar hooch on LZ Jamie and told me that the night that I was shot, the LZ got hit pretty bad and again three nights later as well. Sappers had attempted to infiltrate the compound and the LZ took a lot of mortar fire. When I spent time on the tower at night, part of my job was to watch out for sappers that tried to infiltrate the LZ. Maybe I would have spotted them and picked them off. Maybe I would have taken a mortar round, instead.
On December 15th, I was transported to Camp Zama, an Army hospital in Japan. I had gotten Falciparum Malaria and was running a 103° fever. They began giving me quinine pills. One of the nurses found out I had just turned 21 the day before and brought in a cake. They were also handing out beer. I had a half of a can and lost it, cake and all. The nurse came by later and told me that quinine pills and beer don’t mix. Thanks for the heads up.
On December 21st, I left Japan. It was a 26 hour flight via a C-130 that was lined with wounded soldiers on stretchers. We made a brief stop in Alaska on our way and then on to Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. I stayed there for two days to get checked out and was then able to fly home for Christmas. I flew military stand-by but ended up in 1st Class.
I returned to Valley Forge in early January and spent the next ten months in rehab. While I was there I received a large envelope that contained 31 letters from a 4th and 5th grade class in Pontiac, Michigan. They also took up a collection and included a check for $13.00. I can’t begin to tell you how I felt when I read those letters. I still have them to this day.
I was honorably discharged from the Army with a medical retirement in October, 1970.
Sometime around late 1998 or early 1999, I noticed that when I cut myself or scratched myself it would seem to bleed longer than I thought it should have. I remembered that when I was very young I would get excessive nosebleeds. I had rheumatic fever when I was growing up (as did my dad when he was young). I assumed that was the reason for the excessive bleeding.
One day I was out helping my next door neighbor build a deck out in back of our condo. I was sitting on the decking as we were adding the wood floor and in so doing I picked up splinters on the side of my calf. My leg got all red and irritated, but I managed to remove most of the slivers.
That evening, I was sitting in my recliner, as usual, watching the tube and I began to develop a fever. The area of the leg where the splinters were felt very warm as well. The fever wouldn’t subside after applying cold packs on my forehead and taking Tylenol, so the next morning Linda took me to the emergency room at Good Sam Hospital. They gave me a tetanus shot and sent me down to radiology to test for a blood clot. Everything checked out fine there, so they sent me home with a prescription for antibiotics and told me to keep a watch on it.
Over the next year or so I began to notice some swelling in my leg and foot. My primary care doctor put me on Lasix (a diuretic) and a low sodium diet. I had developed edema. Edema occurs when tiny blood vessels in the body (capillaries) leak fluid. This leakage can result from damage to or increased pressure in the capillaries. When the body senses the capillaries are leaking, the kidneys begin to retain more sodium and water than normal to compensate for the lost fluid from the blood vessels. This increases the amount of fluid circulating through the body, which causes the capillaries to leak more. The fluid from the capillaries leaks into the surrounding tissue, causing the tissue to swell.
Due to this edema, my doctor severely reduced my salt intake – no more pepperoni and green olive pizza. No more ketchup. No more pasta sauce. Linda had a huge tomato garden that year and she knew how much I loved my pasta, so she decided to make her own sauce using our homegrown tomatoes, since most canned tomatoes are loaded with sodium. She peeled and blanched a ton of tomatoes and made several batches of sauce. It was a lot of work – truly a labor of love. The sauce turned out awesome.
My health started going down hill at a noticeably more rapid pace in the spring and summer of 2002. I was always tired and had no energy to do anything and the swelling was getting worse.
The Saturday of Labor Day weekend, we had a cookout at our house. Our guests were over, the burgers were on the grill - and my head was on the table. I was sound asleep. I could not stay awake. I was finally able to get myself into the house and onto the couch where I proceeded to sleep for the next day.
I woke up with chest pains so bad that my ribs and chest cavity were so sore that I could not get up on my own. The next day we were supposed to go over to my dad’s for our annual cookout. I didn’t have enough energy to even give that a thought. I slept all that day and all the next day, which was Labor Day. I was sleeping 22 out of 24 hours and had no appetite.
The next day, Linda called my doctor and he instructed her to take me in to the emergency room. They took X-rays and I was diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia. I had fluid in my chest cavity. They kept me there for a day or two and sent me home.
I then began to swell up everywhere. It became very difficult to get up from a chair or to move about. Going to the bathroom was quite a chore. It took every bit of energy I had just to get up the stairs to go to bed at night.
My internist sent me for all kinds of blood tests to determine what the heck was wrong with me. It was a real head-scratcher. Nothing showed up on the test results. I was referred to a hematologist and he administered a bone marrow test, which scared the heck out of me – the thought of that huge needle being inserted into my back. I do not like needles at all. What got me through the procedure was the fact that my sister-in-law, Georgine, had died from leukemia just a few years prior and I know that she had to have many, many bone-marrow tests done and I never heard her complain. I had no right to be a wimp. Well, that test came back negative and so we were back to square one.
As a member of the VFW, I receive their national magazine every month. I had remembered reading an article about a veteran who served in Vietnam who had been recently diagnosed with the Hepatitis C virus (HCV). He had served in Vietnam in 1969, was wounded, and was given blood transfusions. It was determined that the virus was in one or more of the units of blood he had received via transfusion during surgery. Prior to 1992, blood was not being tested before being used in transfusions. The article went on to explain that this virus can lay dormant for 30 years or more and could be detected by way of a simple blood test – a specific blood test for Hepatitis C. This blood test was not one of the usual tests given during a CMP or CBC.
I showed the article to my doctor and he immediately ordered the HCV blood test and, sure enough, it came back positive. I was then referred to a liver specialist, Dr. Payne. He examined me and told me that I indeed had HCV and that I was also cirrhotic. He explained that my most likely option would be a liver transplant due to the fact that I was in stage 4. There are four stages of liver disease, stages 1-4, with 4 being the worst. Stage 4 is more commonly referred to as End-Stage Liver Disease.
Had I been in stage 1 or maybe even stage 2, I might have been given the option of entering the treatment program. It was never offered to me because of the advanced progression (more about treatment options later on). I honestly do not remember what the specialist told me I should do next. Things started going downhill rapidly and I began to feel worse.
Symptoms of Hepatitis C (non-inclusive):
- muscle aches
- easily bruised
- low-grade fever
- loss of appetite
- yellowing of the skin and eyes
- abdominal discomfort
- weight loss
- fluid retention
- mental confusion
Linda had been talking with my primary care doctor on a regular basis and we made several trips to Good Sam Hospital for two or three days at a time. The problems that I had been experiencing that kept me in the hospital included extremely high ammonia levels and very low potassium levels. They had to administer supplements intravenously. The doctors would not let me go home until the levels reached a certain point. Once I cleared that hurdle, they sent me home with prescriptions for ammonia and potassium pills and restricted my sodium intake, but the oral medication was not getting into me fast enough to work properly, so I would return for another two or three or four days for the IV. I was also given several units of plasma later on.
On a less serious note, my niece Stacy, worked as an emergency room nurse at Good Sam. During my visits there, she would often stop by to visit and ask if there was anything I wanted. We got to talking about the food there and I mentioned that I sure did like the Jell-O there, but they do not serve enough green Jell-O for me. For most people who stay at the hospital, any green Jell-O is too much. It happens to be my favorite. So being the terrific care provider that Stacy is, she began making me green Jell-O at home and bringing it in to the hospital! I will never forget that because it meant so much to me at the time.
I was then referred to a hepatologist, Dr. Donald Jensen, at Rush University Medical Center (then Rush-Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital). He determined that I had ascites. Ascitic fluid had leaked from the surface of the liver and intestine. A combination of factors were responsible. They include portal hypertension, decreased ability of the blood vessels to retain fluid, fluid retention by the kidneys, and alterations in various hormones and chemicals that regulate bodily fluids. This fluid needed to be removed. Ascites can cause a great deal of pain, difficulty in breathing, and it affects how well the kidneys work. The Lasix was supposed to keep this in check, but the fluid was accumulating faster than my body could remove it naturally. He then performed a paracentesis in his office. What that involved was numbing an area of the abdomen and inserting a long, thin needle into the belly and draining the fluid. I think he took about two liters at that time. He referred to my abdomen as a giant pumpkin.
During all of this, Linda’s grandmother was in declining health. She was in a hospice situation at home and had a nurse staying with her. After a fairly lengthy battle, she finally passed away in peace and without pain. I wasn’t much help to Linda, or myself either during all of this. It made me feel guilty that I was of no help either physically or emotionally.
I wanted to go to the wake, but I was so swollen that I had no clothes that would fit other than sweat clothes. So Linda spent an incredible amount of time on the phone looking for someone who carried a size 15 shoe - my foot was so swollen. Then I needed a pair of pants with a waist that was much larger than what would normally be carried in a regular clothes store. I think she ended up in Villa Park at Omar the Tent Maker. Anyway, it was a real ordeal. Then Linda called my barber and asked him to come to the house and cut my hair. Then it was in to the wheelchair and off we went to the wake. I realize it was a real pain to get me there, but I’m glad we took the effort to do so.
In late October of 2002, my health was rapidly going south. I was in Good Sam Hospital and Dr. Payne told me that it was time for me to decide whether or not I was ready to accept the fact that a liver transplant was the only thing that could save my life. It was at that point that we gathered my family together and explained to everyone just what exactly I was facing. I signed a Power of Attorney form and a Health Care Directive form. It was a very emotional time.
During one of my doctor’s appointments in between my hospital stays, my internist, Dr. Klickman, asked me if I had made peace with my maker. That one had caught me off-guard! I replied that I hadn’t given it any thought. He said, maybe I should think about it. What I had been going through was life-threatening and that he felt that I should be prepared for the worst.
I was developing hepatic encephalopathy. This is a condition that occurs when the brain and nervous system are damaged through complications of liver disorders. Some neurological symptoms include various changes in consciousness, behavior, and personality. I was lethargic and had trouble remembering my name or Linda’s name. They tested me on this often to determine how bad the encephalopathy was. I remember watching the Bears/Packers football game one Monday night at the hospital and having the doctor come in the next morning and asking me who won and what the score was. I couldn’t come up with it. That was the real test. I’m sure the Packers must have won, though.
My ammonia levels were skyrocketing. When the body breaks down red blood cells, bilirubin is produced, and when the gastrointestinal tract metabolizes protein, ammonia is produced. A failing liver doesn’t filter those chemicals and eliminate them. High bilirubin levels produce jaundice, and elevated levels of ammonia accumulate in the brain, producing confusion, coma, and death.
It was then the doctors decided that I needed to get escalated care and I was taken to Rush University Medical Center by ambulance in the middle of the night. Linda and her mother followed the ambulance. I was admitted and given a battery of tests to determine exactly where I stood with this horrendous disease. I was a potential candidate for a liver transplant, but in order to determine if my body could stand the rigors of this intense surgery, I would need to pass a series of tests. These tests included either a CT scan or MRI (I don’t remember which), blood analysis, ultrasound, EKG, liver angiograph, a peritoneoscopy (an examination of the abdominal cavity), upper and lower GI series, a renal function test, a cholangiogram (bile duct scan), a pulmonary function test, and a psychiatric evaluation. I had a team of 8 doctors that ordered and evaluated my test results. Once the tests and consults were completed, my case was presented to the Liver Transplant Selection Conference that met once a week.
There are two criteria that need to be met to determine candidacy for a liver transplant and includes, but is not limited to:
- The presence of end-stage liver disease, which cannot be cured by other medical treatments
- Negative HIV test
- Stable support system, such as family and/or friends
- At least six months abstinence from alcohol and substance abuse
- Full understanding of the transplant process
- Ability to understand and demonstrate compliance with the medical care required
- No active infections
- No active cancer, with the exception of some liver tumors
- No other medical conditions that will interfere with recovery from a transplant (such as heart or lung disease).
Next, the team decides the candidate’s category. These include:
- Accepted – the person meets the criteria for transplant
- Deferred – the person does not meet the criteria for transplant, further testing or treatment is necessary
- Declined – the person does not meet the criteria either due to medical or psychosocial reasons.
Well, I passed with flying colors. I was a definite candidate. I had passed the scrutiny of the Selection Conference and was given the green light to proceed. The hospital had been given the approval to proceed from my insurance company. There was only one person standing in my way – my Social Worker. Her name was Charlotte and I will never forget her. She needed to be convinced that I had not been using alcohol for nearly a year prior and that I would not drink any alcohol ever again. She wanted me to attend AA meetings, a VA counselor, a support group, or in some way convince her that I was not going to abuse the miracle that I was about to receive. Linda and I met with her on several occasions and I made her, as well as my surgeon, Dr. Dodson, a promise that I would never drink alcohol again. I have not, nor will I ever, break that promise.
During this time, my abdominal cavity continued to fill up with fluids – the ascites. Ascitic fluid is an accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity, most commonly due to cirrhosis and severe liver disease. These fluids needed to be drained. I was taken down to radiology and had a paracentesis performed with the guidance of an ultrasound. The needle, along with a vacuum tube hooked up to a 2-liter bottle (like a pop bottle) is inserted into the abdomen. I would have two or three 2-liter bottles drained every day for several days in a row.
During all of this, Linda realized how serious the whole situation was and that there was a definite possibility that things could go wrong and that it was important that my sons be near. Since my divorce, I had a distant relationship with my sons. I knew they resented my being the reason we were no longer one happy family living under one roof together. It broke my heart, especially since I never shared any details as far as my side of the story concerning the divorce with them. I just kept it to myself and left it at that. But, I was fortunate to have been able to keep somewhat in touch with Chris around that time, but Brian had been away at school and I did not know his exact whereabouts. We hadn’t been in touch for a long time. Linda contacted Chris and explained the situation and they began playing detective looking for Brian. I had some friends on the police force that I believe may have been called on to assist with the search. Anyway, one day while I was spending a getaway weekend at Rush Medical Center, I was shocked by a visit by both Chris and Brian. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
On November 1, 2002 I was officially put on the waiting list for a liver transplant and sent home with a pager. I was to stay close to home and my Transplant Coordinator would be in touch. There was no way of knowing how long the wait might be - days, weeks, months, or even years. Unfortunately I did not have long to live without this life-saving transplant. I was in a near-coma stage of the encephalopathy and I was given only a few short weeks to live. My spleen was enlarged and my liver and kidneys were beginning to shut down.
The process that determines who gets an organ and when, is determined by a Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD). This is a numerical scale used for liver allocation. These scores are based on the patient’s risk of dying while waiting for a liver transplant and are based on objective and verifiable medical data. In other words, those who are the sickest move to the top of the list.
According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), there are approximately 97,000 people currently awaiting transplants in the United States and roughly 7,000 will die each year waiting for an organ. As for liver transplants, approximately 68% of the patients will wait at least a year, 38% will wait over three years, and 22% will wait over fivr years for a liver.
So, I was sent home with nothing to do but wait for a call. We had arranged for a hospital bed to be brought to the house because I could no longer get up the stairs to go to bed. We had it put in the family room where Linda could spend all of her ‘spare’ time nursing me. I was a real joy to be with back then. One of the many medications I was given was Lactulose. This is a horrible-tasting yellow liquid laxative that I needed to take something like four times a day. Its purpose was to keep the system cleaned out in order to remove the excess toxic ammonia. The bed’s close location to the bathroom was a blessing, since I was not moving very quickly – not by a long shot. My leg was extremely swollen due to the edema and I was very weak and bloated.
I had trouble breathing with all of the fluid in my abdomen, especially at night. Linda would rub my belly at night so that I (and she) could get to sleep for an hour or two at a time. She would sleep on the couch at night to be near me in case I needed anything.
I had found out that a good friend of ours, Reverend John Steer and his wife, Donna, were going to be in the area over the weekend. John is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who lost an arm in the Battle of Hill 875, as well as being shot numerous times in his right leg and shoulder, shrapnel in his left thigh and chest. Hill 875 was one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. It was the single largest battle of the war and 287 American were killed. John had later been awarded the Silver Star for his heroism in that battle. John and his wife, Donna, travel across the country singing and speaking to veterans groups. He is very well known and highly respected around the U.S. They also ran a homeless shelter/halfway house in Arkansas. So I called John and explained to him my situation and without giving it another thought, he and Donna came to our house that Friday night as well as a few other close friends, some who drove two hours to come. We ordered pizza and reminisced over the years we all had known each other. It was eerie in a way, but I knew I was amongst friends. It meant a lot to me and it helped to take my mind off of the situation.
The next night was our annual VFW Veterans Day Dinner Dance. We had arranged for a wheelchair and decided to give it a go. I was weak and tired, but being around my veteran friends seemed like the thing to do. Everyone was really nice and offered to help with anything we needed. I was glad I went. Three days later, I got the call.
My pager went off at 11:00 a.m. on Veteran’s Day, November 11, 2002. My number was up and they found what they hoped was a compatible liver. It was in the process of being transported to the hospital. Linda packed up a few things and we headed to Rush. There was a bad storm that day and Linda could not see out the windshield as the wipers were shot. We had to stop at a gas station and beg to have someone change them for us.
I checked in and was sent up to the liver surgery ward to await further testing and to prep for surgery. I remember at the time that I was not scared, but I was very anxious. I just wanted it all to be over. Linda and I waited for what seemed like forever. The next thing I know, a man walked into my room and introduced himself as Carlos. He had received a liver just a week or so prior and was waiting to be sent home. I thought that was pretty fast recovery from such a major surgery. He explained to me what to expect and that I should not worry about anything. The fact that he was up walking around and ready to go home was amazing to me. He gave me hope and inspiration. I got strength from him just from that brief visit. It was like an angel had been sent in to take care of me.
I was taken down to pre-surgery and my family was all there waiting for me. Dr. Forrest Dodson, my surgeon, came in and explained to all of us what he was going to do and how long he expected the surgery to last.
The time was near and they began to wheel me down the hall at 11:00 p.m. They let Linda follow for a little bit, and we hugged and kissed and I told her I would see her soon. I held up four fingers as a gesture that somehow stood for the competitiveness, endurance, and determination that my football hero, Brett Favre, represented. I needed all of my mojos working for me that I could find.
I was told that the surgery lasted around 4½ hours and I woke up in ICU with endotracheal tubes down my throat, IVs everywhere and feeling very groggy. I had several IVs in my right hand/arm and I remember my dad said that my right hand looked like the size of a boxing glove due to the swelling. I spent two days or so in ICU that was more uncomfortable than anything else had been up to that point. It was very cold in that room and I was right under an air vent. I had been draining fluids from tubes in my abdomen, but the incision was leaking and I was lying on completely soaked sheets for two entire days not being able to keep warm. I couldn’t be moved very easily in order to changes the sheets, either. They had to bring in a special portable heater just to try and keep me warm.
On Thursday, I was finally able to be moved to a private room. That Friday night, Linda had a big event that she had been planning for her job (mostly working from the hospital all week) and she had to attend. Kathy had stayed with Linda for all the time she could, and then Cindy and my nieces drove up from Kentucky to be with me. She asked if there was anything she could bring and I said, “How about some chocolate bars and cans of coke”. She loaded me up and I supplemented my soup and whatever they called dinner with that.
As it is with all post-surgery patients, the nurses would come in every couple of hours and take vitals. Due to the anti-rejection medication I was prescribed, they also checked my blood-sugar levels every few hours. The medication wreaks havoc with blood-sugar and they kept an eye on the levels because diabetes is one of the side-effects. Either they did not mention that to me or I was just plain old stubborn (or stupid – your choice). Well my blood-sugar levels went sky-high and they had to inject me with insulin every few hours around the clock. This went on for a couple of days before the old 2x4 hit me in the head. Maybe I should quit eating the chocolate bars and drinking the coke! I never made the connection. My defense was that I was taking all kinds of new medicine and I was whacked out. I’m sticking to that story. Once I gave those up, my levels came down to acceptable levels and I convinced the doctor not to send me home with syringes and insulin.
One of Linda’s favorite TV shows at the time was Touched by an Angel. I would usually watch it with her with one eye open while reading the paper, so I at least knew the gist of what it was all about. Once, during recovery in the middle of the night, I began to hear a deep voice at the foot of my bed calling me – “Robert…Robert...Robert”, with a voice as deep as James Earl Jones. I honestly believed that this was the Angel of Death coming for me. I quickly sat up in bed, only to realize that it was a huge African-American male nurse coming to take my vitals. I cannot describe how strange that felt.
I am not an overly religious person, but I do believe in God and I live an honest life. I asked my dad if he would bring the family bible with him one day when he came by to visit. Actually, I think it might have been his idea. Anyway, I began to read Mathew and was amazed at how much it made sense. In fact a lot of it was apropos for my situation. Weird. I get most of those bible answers right on Jeopardy now.
I don’t know if it was all of the coke and chocolate bars I had been ingesting, but I had trouble sleeping at night. I was upside down with my hours. I could only watch the Fonzi at 2:30 in the a.m. for so long. So I would go for strolls in a wheelchair in the middle of the night. Believe me, it was a real workout – surgery takes a lot out of you. It turns out that there just wasn’t that much to see in the middle of the night in a surgical ward, so I finally talked one of the nurses into letting me use a computer near the nurse’s station at night. Since I probably wouldn’t be able to drive for a while once I got home, I decided to do all of my Christmas shopping on-line that year. I scheduled delivery for everything for a time when I knew I would be home. It is a practice that I continue to use to this day.
It is a very strange feeling going through the illness, the surgery, and the recovery process. It is incredibly emotional – not only for me, but for my family, and in particular, Linda. She shared every single moment with me from the very beginning. She talked to the doctors on the phone and took me to all of my appointments. She fed me, gave me my medications, put up with my medicine-induced moods and stubbornness. She stayed up with me at night when I was in pain or couldn’t sleep. These were very trying times for her. As I mentioned, Linda’s grandmother was very ill as well and was dying. Not only was Linda taking care of me, she was also her grandmother’s part-time caregiver. She would tend to her at lunchtime and on the way home from work, only to have me to also have to deal with. All of this while she was working a full-time job.
So with all of this, and my recovery going well the week following my surgery, it was expected that I would be going home for Thanksgiving. Having just received the miracle of life, and feeling very thankful to still be alive, I asked Linda if we could have Thanksgiving dinner at home with some of the family. Hindsight says that I was being very selfish asking her to do all of this work at the last minute, but hey, I was thankful! Linda did what she always does – pulled off yet another extraordinary event. It meant a lot to me to be home and alive on Thanksgiving Day that year.
I was sent home with a drugstore full of prescriptions:
- Prograf. This medication lowers the body's immune system. The immune system helps the body fight infections. The immune system can also fight or reject a transplanted organ. This is because the immune system treats the new organ as an invader. Prograf increases the chances of developing skin cancer and diabetes, as well as lowering the blood cells that help the body fight infections. This can make it easier to bleed from an injury or get sick from being around others who are ill. For the rest of my life I will need to avoid excessive exposure to direct sunlight and avoid being around those who are sick. Even a common cold can be life-threatening if it were to progress to pneumonia.
- Prednisone. Prednisone is in a class of drugs called steroids. It prevents the release of substances in the body that cause inflammation. It too, weakens the immune system. Initially it had caused me to experience tremors, but I was weaned off of it after about 2 months
- Pepcid. This was prescribed to combat the acidic effects of all of the other medications in my stomach.
- Cellcept. This is taken along with Prograf to help with anti-rejection.
- Bactrim. This treats different types of infection caused by bacteria in the stomach from the medications.
- Nystatin. This medicine is used to treat fungus infections in the mouth (also known as thrush) that is caused by taking some of the other medications. It is a mouthwash.
- Norco. This was prescribed for pain. I only took a couple of them for the first few days.
- Lasix. I continued to take this diuretic for a couple of months or so following surgery.
Prior to my surgery I had never been to the Veterans Administration for any health care whatsoever. I had gotten all of my prescriptions filled at Rush before leaving and I remember that my co-pay was $75.00. I decided that I did not want to have to do that every month, so I contacted the VA at Hines to set up an appointment. I was assigned a primary care doctor and a liver specialist. I explained to them that all of my care would be handled at Rush, but would like the VA to fill the prescriptions that the doctors at Rush wrote for me. They told me that I would need to see the liver specialist at Hines every 3 months and that they would then cover the entire cost of my medications. Sounded like a good deal to me. I eventually got the 3 months stretched to 6 months and I now I only need to go in once a year. I phone in my meds every month and they get delivered via mail at no charge.
About two months after my surgery, I received the bill from the hospital and doctors. It came to almost $300,000. Being the detective that I am, I decided to take a trip to the Medical Records section of the hospital just to see what all that money went for. In so doing, I found the surgeon’s report. As it turns out, my gall bladder was removed during the procedure. I guess it must have gotten in the way. I found out later that it is standard procedure to remove the gall bladder during a liver transplant.
I see my hepatologist at Rush every six months and get my blood tested every three months. I go in for a liver biopsy once a year just prior to my annual visit with my surgeon, Dr. Dodson.
Allow me to explain a little bit about the liver biopsy. For three years following my transplant, my hepatologist suggested (threatened) that one day I would need a liver biopsy. The thought of that was never very appealing to me. Since liver biopsies are invasive and they do have some risks, such as internal bleeding, infection, and mild to moderate pain, my goal was to put this off as long as I could.
Then one day, my luck ran out. My hepatologist at the time, Dr. Stanley Martin Cohen, informed me that he would like to have this test run on me. He said it was precautionary to make sure there were no underlying problems that wouldn’t show up on the routine blood tests. Simply stated, a liver biopsy is a procedure for the diagnosis of abnormal liver conditions.
So I made the appointment with the hospital for this out-patient procedure. I was told to schedule the whole day and to bring a driver. No food or drink after midnight. I was very apprehensive about this, as most people tend to be. The care I receive at Rush is first-class and my entire post-transplant team has kept me very much alive these last few years. I was getting used to that and I respect their track record, so what could I do? Time to suck it up.
The procedure began by inserting an IV into the back of my hand. I, of course, tried to persuade the nurse against this, but my doctor explained that in the unlikely event that if some internal bleeding were to occur during the test, they did not want to be searching for a vein later to insert an IV in order to treat the bleeding. Then a topical numbing shot was given to an area on my right side between two ribs. This area was identified by Dr. Cohen and verified via ultrasound as being the most advantageous to enter. A couple more needles were inserted to inject local anesthesia inside of me. Then a gun-type needle was inserted and shot into my liver. This retrieved a core of tan-red tissue measuring 2.0 cm in length. I then had to lie on my right side for an hour and then on my back for two more hours. My rib cage felt like someone whacked me with a baseball bat, but a couple of Tylenols relieved the pain. I was then released and took Linda to Chinatown for a late lunch. Piece of cake.
I’m not the kind of guy that wants to know too much about these things until it’s over, when I no longer have the opportunity to chicken out. It wasn’t until the day after the procedure that I did some research. It turns out that biopsies are important for several reasons. First it helps your medical team determine exactly where you and your liver are in the course of the disease process (grade and stage). It is used to decide what type, if any, therapies are appropriate. The three main things that are looked for are inflammation, fibrosis, and cirrhosis. The biopsy may also reveal other histological and pathological findings, such as the presence of lymphoid nodules, damage to the small bile ducts, and/or the presence of fat.
If there is fibrosis present, the levels of staging, which range from stage 0 (normal), to stage 4 (cirrhosis), can be detected. Stage 1 is mild fibrosis, stage 2 is moderate fibrosis, and stage 3 is severe or bridging fibrosis. Once a patient has stage 3 or stage 4, the risk of liver cancer and liver failure are increased. Stages 3 and 4 fibrosis are life threatening, while stages 0, 1, and 2 are not.
While there are alternative tests available, such as Fibroscan and HCV Fibrosure, they are not substitutes. Liver biopsies have been performed for many, many years and are still considered the “golden standard of liver tests”. However, more research is being given to other non-invasive methods. The market timing for the non-invasive tests is good, considering that doctors are increasingly open to alternatives to biopsy. Acceptance will be easier to come by providing research bears out manufacturers’ claims that they are at least as accurate as the biopsy.
I should point out that liver transplantation does not cure HCV. The majority of people with hepatitis C who receive liver transplants experience a recurrence of the virus. Those with HCV who receive liver transplants also are at accelerated risk of developing cirrhosis within five years.
Based on the test results from my biopsy and also from the RNA blood test, my doctor felt that it might be worth my while to consider a treatment program. Before I get into that, allow me to explain genotypes. Genotype refers to the genetic make-up of an organism or a virus. There are at least six distinct HCV genotypes identified, with several sub-types. The most common type/sub-type in North America is type 1a, which is what I have. Unfortunately, this is the least responsive type to treatment.
The treatment itself consists of weekly injections of a drug called peginterferon alfa-2a (Pegasys) combined with twice-daily oral doses of ribavirin (Rebetol) — a broad-spectrum antiviral agent. The recommended course of this treatment is for a 48-week period.
The ultimate goal of HCV treatment is to clear the virus from the bloodstream. Combined pegylated interferon and ribavirin clear HCV infection in 40 percent to 80 percent of those treated. Its success often depends on the type of infection. For example, this treatment clears infection in up to half the people with genotype 1 — the most common genotype found in the United States — and in up to 80 percent of those with genotypes 2 and 3.
Unfortunately, there is not much research available for post-transplant treatment as far as clearing the HCV virus. Most treatment programs are administered to help clear the virus and thus avoiding the need for a transplant. My doctor felt that after reviewing my biopsy results that it would be worth a shot to begin the treatment, if for no other reason than to hold the virus at bay. Linda and I discussed the pros and cons of this treatment. It would involve weekly interferon injections and twice-a-day Ribavirin tablets. The side-effects were a serious consideration. More than half of the patients that begin treatment drop out by the fourth week.
One of the more common side effects of pegylated interferon include: a decrease in white blood cells and platelets, anemia, nausea, diarrhea, fever, chills, muscle and joint pain, difficulty in concentrating, thyroid dysfunction, hair loss, sleeplessness, irritability, mild to serious depression, erectile dysfunction, and rarely, suicidal thoughts. Other serious adverse events include bone marrow toxicity, cardiovascular disorders, hypersensitivity, endocrine disorders, pulmonary disorders, colitis, pancreatitis, and ophthalmologic disorders (eye and vision problems).
Pegylated interferon may also cause or make worse fatal or life-threatening neuropsychiatric, autoimmune, ischemic, and infectious disorders. My doctor would monitor me closely with periodic clinical and laboratory tests.
Side effects of Ribavirin include nausea and anemia.
Cost was not a factor since the VA was now paying for all of my medications. I had read stories of people who began the treatment and had to drop out because of the serious side-effects, but we decided that I should at least give it a try if there was any chance at all of helping me. After all, I was given a miracle and I needed to do whatever I could to preserve that.
I began the treatment in January of 2007. It did not take long before I began feeling the results of the medications. Both my white and red blood counts dropped drastically putting me into the anemic stage. The doctor prescribed Neupogen to bring the white blood cell count up and Procrit for the red blood count. I was now self-injecting 3 shots into my abdomen weekly and feeling weak and generally lousy. I stuck it out for as long as I could and the doctor recommended that I discontinue the Ribavirin and decrease my interferon to ½ dosage. This would put me into a “maintenance” mode. It would not ever be able to clear the virus, but hopefully keep it from getting any worse. We are basically stalling for time until one or more of the trials for new drugs advance to where they will become available. I am currently on the ½ dosage of interferon and will continue on indefinitely.
Living with Hepatitis C
HCV is not a death sentence. It is a life-adjustment. If I concentrate on reducing stress, remain cognizant of what I breathe, keep my hands clean, avoid germs as much as possible, and keep busy, I will survive. I have good days and I have bad days. I look at every tomorrow as if it’s going to be a good day.
I am going wherever my hepatitis journey takes me. Having hepatitis has taught me many valuable lessons and has opened many doors for me. It is a journey that I participate in and make choices about. I try to enjoy every day of my journey. I focus on all of the wonderful opportunities I have instead of viewing the disease as a detriment. I choose to make this as positive an experience as it can be.
I have bad days – this disease is very powerful and has side-effects that come and go. Some days I just am not up to participate in some activities. Some days are just harder to get through than others.
What does my future hold? Nobody knows, but I have a great support system at home and I have many interests that keep me busy. If I keep taking my meds and try to live right, who knows how long I will be around?
There are some very special people that were involved one way or another with the success of my recovery process:
Charlotte, my Social Worker – who believed in me
Carlos – who inspired me and gave me hope
Chris and Brian – who gave me the love and determination to survive
My family – for all of their love and support (and jello and chocolate)
Reverend John and Donna Steer – whose prayers and support helped to get me through
Drs. Jensen and Cohen – my hepatologists who kept me alive
Dr. Dodson – my transplant surgeon who mentored from the best – Dr. Thomas Starzl
The entire, incredibly dedicated, nursing staff at Rush
Georgine – whose bravery, strength, and determination I relied on
Linda – who kept me alive with her unconditional love, devotion, and support. She was, and will always be, my guardian angel.
The day before I got the call from the hospital informing me that a liver had become available, we saw on the news that there had been a bad automobile accident in Oak Lawn and people had died and there were also a rumor of violent tornados in Missouri. We had wondered if either of these places was where my gift had come from. It was years later that we found out the circumstances surrounding my organ donor.
The Gift of Hope, an organization that manages organ allocation, also coordinates any correspondence between the family of the organ donor and the recipient(s). This begins anonymously if and when the donor’s family chooses to allow their information to be shared with the recipient, they fill out a form along with a letter that the Gift of Hope holds until such time that the recipient chooses to request contact. If there is agreement by both parties then the letter is forwarded and information is exchanged and it is up to each family to decide if they care to pursue any further correspondence.
Linda and I wanted to be able to correspond with the donor’s family to not only thank them, but to find out more about the person whose organ I had received. We kept putting it off, but one day, almost 2 years later, Linda sent the letter to the Gift of Hope. My donor’s wife, Holly, agreed to correspond and sent a letter to us. As you read the letters, it explains that Holly did not receive Linda’s first letter before she sent us her letter.
August 14, 2004
Dear Gift of Hope Donor Family,
I have started writing this letter to you and your family many times over the course of the last nearly two years. It has been difficult for me to try to find the right words to thank you for saving my husband’s life at a time when your life was crumbling around you. Your decision to share the gift of life of your loved one was perhaps one of the most important and yet perhaps more difficult decisions you faced in November 2002. Please be assured that it was the right choice.
My husband (Bob) is a Vietnam Veteran who lost a leg during the war. It was during that surgery and a blood transfusion that he contracted Hepatitis C, known as the “silent epidemic”. I’ve enclosed an article Bob wrote about his experience that was published in Hepatitis Magazine. I hope that it will give you some insight into the incredible man you saved by making the decision to share the gift of life.
Bob appreciates every day and is working with several organizations to “give back” and bring awareness about the Gift of Hope, the American Liver Foundation, Hepatitis C, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and VietNow (a national Vietnam Veterans organization). We have recently founded an organization, “Forgotten Heroes”, and plan to work with disabled veterans at Hines VA Hospital in Chicago.
Bob and I would very much like to learn about the person that saved Bob’s life, giving us incredible hope for the future and encourage you to contact us.
My heartfelt and sincere gratitude to you and your family.
November 10, 2004
To the recipients of my husband’s organs….
It has been two years since Jim died. My life has changed forever, as has yours. I have learned to cope with some of the many things I now have to do by myself. I hope you have learned to cope with the many new things you are now able to do with your family.
One thing I feel compelled to do is tell you a little about my husband. Jim and I met Christmas Eve 1969 on a blind date. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we were somehow meant for each other. They say opposites attract…Jim was from a small town in West Virginia – I was a city girl from Chicago. He had a brother and two sisters – I was an only child. His parents were hard-working people from a poverty-stricken area who put good home-grown food on the table, but little else. There were no birthday parties or Christmas toys. I too had hard working parents, but parents who were able to afford just about anything I wanted. Jim was an extrovert – I was shy.
We were married in 1971. We were married 31 years. Life was good to us. We lived in the south suburbs of Chicago and Jim worked as a mechanical engineer. I was a banker. Our daughter was born in 1977. Life became even better. Jim was a doting father to his little girl. That little girl is now a teacher.
In 1994 Jim opened his own business. I am running that business now. Nothing to do with engineering. Jim and I were both part of the great corporate down-sizing that took place in the 90’s. While Jim was a manager and travelled all over the world for the major company he worked for, he knew at 52 he was no longer going to be able to compete in the engineering field with the younger college graduates. In stead, he felt the service industry held a world of potential. And he was right. We started a small commercial maintenance company that now employs 12 people.
Jim and I were able to give our daughter a college education, buy our “dream home”, travel, and have some of the nicer things life had to offer. During those years Jim became a collector of many things…model railroad trains, die-cast cars, 50’s memorabilia, especially from Route 66. Those were the “toys” he never had as a child.
Jim was a friend and a lover. He was truly a romantic, and the most sentimental man I have ever known. He loved me and his family with a passion seldom seen these days. He was a big, tall, strong man who was not ashamed to cry. He was respected and loved by many. I didn’t even realize how much until his wake when hundreds of people stood in line for up to an hour to say good-bye.
Jim was killed in a senseless accident. While we had never talked about organ donation, I felt it was the right thing to do. To try and make some sense out of his death. He had been a blood donor as a young man. And as Jim got older he used to say that he had everything in life he could possibly want and that it was now his turn to give back. Organ donation was my way of giving back from Jim.
I have many questions about Jim’s death and why he had to die, but I also believe that God has a master plan. I do not know the reason and I never will. I guess that’s what faith is. That and knowing in so may ways Jim is still with me.
y husband was a man who lived hard and died hard. He lived life to the fullest – on his own terms. My only regret is that we didn’t have more time together. I wouldn’t change one moment of the years we had. He would want you to live your life to the fullest too. Cherish God’s and Jim’s gift to you.
I wish I had written this letter sooner, for Jim’s sake and for mine. If you would like to communicate, please do. Jim and I both wish you a long and happy life.
June 29, 2005
It seems that I have read your letter 20 or 30 times. I’m not sure what happened, but the letter that I sent to you last summer apparently never made it to you and your family. Before I tell you about the many similarities of the Jim and Holly and Bob and Linda story, I would very much like you to put down this letter and read the letter (and story) that you were meant to receive a year ago. Really – please read it now – I’ll wait for you here…
Amazing isn’t it? Someone as caring and sensitive as your Jim would save someone as amazing as my Bob? While I’m not a tremendously religious person, I too am a true believer in God’s master plan. As you read, Bob is a veteran. The day of his transplant happened to be November 11th – Veteran’s Day. The call came at 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month. Bob was so sick that he had only been on the transplant list for 11 days. The surgery began at 11:00 p.m. Bob’s recovery was amazing, and he was only in the hospital for 11 days. To make 11 seem more like our lucky number, my birthday is July 11th! Wouldn’t surprise me if one of your birthdays or your anniversary were on an 11.
There are other things – Jim was an engineer…Bob was an engineer. It may seem insignificant, but I noticed that your paper was clouds and rainbows – I collect rainbow things, and my nickname used to be Rainbow.
One thing you really need to know is how Bob changed after the transplant. He really became more caring, more sensitive, and his appreciation for life just soared. While we knew that it was mostly because he had been given a new life, we suspected that his liver may have come from a woman. I don’t want to seem like I’m making light of the situation, because Bob had always been a nice man. But I truly think that Jim’s “influence” made him even more sentimental and caring. Then there’s the Route 66 stuff we’ve followed that trail several times, and Bob’s dad is a BIG railroad buff.
I guess I could go on and on, but then there would be nothing left for our next letters. While I’m not sure what our next step is supposed to be, Bob and I would both love to meet you and learn more about the angels that save our lives by truly giving us the gift of life.
Dear Bob and Linda,
I was very surprised to receive your “second” letter. No, I never received the first one. I have to admit I was disappointed when my letters to the recipients were not acknowledged, but I was prepared to accept anonymity if that was your choice. I still felt compelled to tell you about Jim, even if you didn’t want to tell me about yourself. But I so wanted to know that you were well and happy. Knowing just that would have been enough.
But to hear your plans to help other veterans makes our correspondence so very special to me. You see, it’s very easy to want to justify the decision to donate. No one wants to think their loved one died in vain. Jim was the victim of a senseless accident, and because of that, I had to feel like his death had some greater meaning. I wanted to think that Jim’s recipient would go on to cure cancer, famine, and finally world peace. And if not you, then surely one of your children.
In the years since Jim died, I have come to realize that all I really want is to know that you are well and happy. That you have chosen to use your gift to give to others is truly wonderful, but you sound like a man who earned the chance to keep living. You have already paid your dues Bob. Enjoy your life and your wife and family. I can tell from Linda’s letter how much she loves you.
Maybe someday our paths will cross, but not yet. Until that time comes, I will always answer your letters should you choose to continue to correspond…and maybe tell you a little more about my very special man. I have informed the staff at Gift of Hope that they may give you my name and address should you wish to correspond directly.
P.S. Jim was in the Army too and went through Basic at Fort Jackson in the early 60’s. He served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He never went overseas, though he was stationed at a Nike base in Wilmington, Ohio.
In January of 2008, we received an invitation from Holly to a “Day of Learning and Remembrance” sponsored by the Gift of Hope. We very much looked forward to finally meeting the woman whose decision helped to save my life.
We spent the day with families of organ donors and listened to some of the stories, but the only one I was interested in was Holly’s story….
Jim had pulled into the driveway of their home in Tinley Park one afternoon and as he was walking up to the house, he tripped on the curb, fell, and hit his head. He wasn’t able to get up and Holly had called the paramedics. They rushed Jim to the hospital and after several tests, told Holly that he had suffered a concussion and that he could go home as long as he took it easy and laid down to rest. Well, the pain got worse so they took Jim back to the hospital the next day and it turned out he was suffering from brain damage. As his condition worsened, the hospital staff called in the Gift of Hope. Apparently this is standard procedure for someone who has not been given much time to live. They explained to Holly that she had the choice of donating Jim’s organs so that others could live. Holly discussed this with their daughter and decided that that’s what Jim would have wanted to do. They agreed under the condition that Jim was to be buried with along with his heart and his eyes.
Jim’s organs went on to save many lives, including mine.
After we moved to what was then called Marion Hills in 1959, my dad was always attending some sort of meeting. I never really knew what they were for or what he was doing at them. Well, I later found out he was part of the group of three individuals that were in the planning stages of incorporating what was to later become the City of Darien. My dad was a Founding Father! Right under my very nose.
Later he served on the planning commission, became the first Police Commissioner, chartered a new bank and became President of the Darien Bank. He served in various other volunteer positions within the city and was the first President of the Darien Club. He was, at various times, named Lion of the Year, Business Man of the Year, and Citizen of the Year.
I was always very proud of my dad, even though I never told him as much. But I must have gotten some of my volunteerism interest from him. I don’t ever remember thinking that I was doing some of the things that I was doing to be just like him, but in some ways it turned out to be the case.
One day after I received my draft notice to report to Ft. Jackson, Carolina, I went down to the basement where my dad was working on one of his many hobbies and he gave me some advice that I never forgot. He said I would be foolish not to use the GI Bill and go to college after my time in the service. The government was going to pay for my tuition and I should take advantage of it.
When I returned to Western Electric after I retired from the Army, I enrolled at the College of DuPage (COD) under the GI Bill. This was in 1971. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I began taking business courses. I went there two or three nights a week and was taking a full-time course load as well as working full time. While I was in the cafeteria, I saw a poster up on the wall that said they were looking for veterans interested in forming a club. The fact that I was a veteran hadn’t really sunk in yet. It wasn’t something you bragged about. Vietnam veterans weren’t very popular – dope-smokin’ baby killers, and all.
I went to the first meeting and met a guy by the name of Gerry-somebody who was not a veteran, but was a member of the faculty that was given the task to form a vet's club. The premise was that we needed some sort of guidance and would probably need some help with something down the road. OK, this probably wasn’t true, but I forget why they thought we needed a club. A resume builder for Gerry, no doubt.
We decided to start meeting on a regular basis and we would discuss issues that we had in common. I found myself having a good time and got to know some of them fairly well. It turned out some of them were from where I worked at Western Electric. Some of the guys were having trouble getting their benefits from the VA and I found that to be troublesome. Back then the VA was a mystery to many of us. Quite honestly, it still is. But I took it upon myself to make some calls and get information sent to us explaining our benefits and how we could speed up the enrollment and entitlement process.
That was my first venture into working with and helping other veterans. If I only had a crystal ball.
I graduated from COD with an Associate in Arts degree in 1972 and I enrolled at Governors State University to pursue an undergraduate degree. I used my GI Bill there as well, as it was a state school. I travelled 50 miles back and forth three or four nights a week for two years and earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration in 1974. To this day I don’t know if it helped me advance in my job or not. The fact that I was able to accomplish this was huge for me. I never was much of a student nor did I have much of a discipline for studying prior to that. I owe all of this to my dad. It seemed to me that dad had become smarter after I graduated from college.
Back at Western Electric there was this radical kind of guy that didn’t seem to care much what other people thought. His name was (and still is) Jim Stepanek. His nickname was (and still is) Crazy. He served in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. At the time I worked with a couple of other Vietnam vets and they told me about an AT&T Vets Club and invited me to come to a meeting. It turns out that the “crazy guy” was the one that formed the club. His main goal was for the veterans to be recognized at the workplace and reap some of the same benefits that other special interest groups in the company enjoyed. We got a budget approved and had picnics, hosted Veteran’s Day events at Bell Labs, worked with some of the other (then known as) Equal Opportunity groups, and erected a veteran’s memorial on the grounds. We grew in size and became respected and honored at AT&T. For this I thank Jim.
One day in the summer of 1983 I was out in the front yard and two guys approached me and asked me if I was a veteran. I said that I was and they told me they were forming a local VFW post in Woodridge. “Would I be interested?” “Why the heck not?” I said. From this was formed the Woodridge Memorial Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1578. To make a very long story short I ended up serving as Post Quartermaster for five years and as Post Commander for five terms over the next 25 years.
One of the members of the newly formed VFW Post was a guy by the name of Don Young. He served with the Navy in Vietnam. I invited him to a Fox Valley VietNow chapter meeting in the spring of 1984. It turns out that the National President of VietNow, Lamont Gaston, owned a campground out in Oregon, Illinois called Lake LaDonna and he was having his annual veterans weekend campout during the first weekend in June. Don and his family were campers and he had been to the one the previous year and asked me if I would like to go that year. I said, “How much beer should I bring?” It turns out that the weekend changed my life forever. There were hundreds of Vietnam veterans and their families spending the weekend at the campground. The entertainment on the campground stage was going to be Britt Small and Festival. Britt and his band had entertained at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Wall in Washington, D.C. on Veterans Day, 1982 and were very popular across the country. I cannot describe what I felt that evening. The band played almost all patriotic songs, some of which they had written themselves. I was never so moved. One of the guest speakers was Rev. John Steer, a Vietnam veteran who lost his arm in Hill 887. Another guest speaker was Sammy Davis, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and an Army Vietnam veteran. These three people changed my life forever. That was in June of 1984 and I still am in constant contact with Britt, John, and Sammy.
My involvement with the veteran movement skyrocketed after that weekend. I had found a mission in life.
In 1985 I cought wind of a movement to erect a Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Springfield. Illinois. A committee had been formed and Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan had made a promise to match dollar-for-dollar all monies we raised. The budget for the memorial was 1.5 million dollars. The DuPage County coordinator for the memorial came to one of our VietNow meeting and explained what needed to be done by the veteran community if this memorial was to be built. The goal was to have the memorial dedicated in May of 1988. I listened to him speak and explain his plans. He was looking for help and I decided that he needed help – mine. I had some ideas of my own as to how to get the project moving forward. This turned out to be another ‘What the heck’ moment. A long story short – I took over as the DuPage County Coordinator and helped to raise over $500,000. We went on to dedicate the memorial on May 5, 1988 at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, the site of Lincoln's Tomb.
During all of this, I also became involved with a local 1st Cav Division Association chapter. I’m not sure exactly how I found out about that, but by this time my network in the veteran community was quite extensive. At one of the meetings that I attended, I met Tim Millar. Tim had just completed his term as the National President of the 1st Cav Division Association. He was involved with the grass roots formation of a committee that was organizing a parade in Chicago to honor the Vietnam veterans. This was sometime in late 1984 or early 1985. I somehow got involved with that project. I worked on the committee that became the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Parade that was held on June 13, 1986. This was the largest veterans parade in history and it changed an incredible number of lives that day and ever since then. It is now known simply as ‘The Parade’.
I was becoming well known throughout the veteran community and I was recruited by (then) Illinois Attorney General Neil Hartigan to serve on his Veterans Advocacy Committee. This was a committee that was comprised of the leaders in veteran’s issues throughout the State of Illinois. We met with the AG once a month to discuss what could be done to help the veterans of Illinois.
In 1987 the Woodridge VFW was approached by the Park District with a proposal to erect a memorial to veterans in the Village and they asked that we join forces to accomplish this. It was to be dedicated during the year of the Village’s 35 year anniversary and there was going to be a parade. We planned a dedication ceremony following the parade. I invited Attorney General Neil Hartigan to be our keynote speaker and Britt Small and Festival to sing the National Anthem.
Well, the craziness didn’t stop there. Jim “Crazy” Stepanek belonged to a group of Vietnam veterans in an organization called ‘VietNow’, the Fox Valley Chapter. They were meeting in Batavia. VietNow was a national organization founded in Rockford, Illinois with their motto being “Veterans Helping Veterans”. They only had three or four chapters, however. Jim invited me to attend one of their meetings and I was impressed. They had maybe 50 veterans in attendance and had certain rituals they followed, but not overly structured. I found that I fit in well. I went to another meeting with Jim and the following day I suggested to him that we consider forming a chapter in our own back yard. So Jim and I worked with the Fox Valley Chapter and set up an informational meeting at the library in Glen Ellyn. We put ads in the local papers and rounded up the guys from AT&T. We had a terrific turnout and subsequently formed the DuPage County Chapter of VietNow. I served as Vice-President for 5 years. The Parade in 1986 had a huge impact on membership - we soared to over 450 members. That was in 1985 and it is still going fairly strong.
In 1989 I was contacted by Lamont Gaston, the President of VietNow and asked if I would be willing to fill a vacancy on the Board of Directors. I told him there was no way I could do that. Well, I served a year on the board and then the next 5 years as National Treasurer. What a sucker.
Lester Weber Memorial Park
I went to Hinsdale High School with Lester Weber, but we did not graduate together. Lester was a confused young man back in the 60’s. He had difficulties with school and was in trouble a lot.
During his senior year, he dropped out of school and joined the Marines. He was sent to Vietnam, completed his tour and was assigned duty in the states. Lester still had difficulty adjusting "back in the world" and decided to volunteer for a second tour of Vietnam.
On February 23, 1969 in Quang Nam Providence in Vietnam, Lance Corporal Lester W. Weber became a hero by successfully attacking 1 enemy and forcing 11 others to break contact. Upon encountering a second North Vietnamese Army soldier he overwhelmed him in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Observing 2 other soldiers firing upon his comrades from behind a dike, L/Cpl. Weber ignored the frenzied firing of the enemy and racing across the hazardous area, dived into their position. He neutralized the position by wrestling weapons from the hands of the 2 soldiers and overcoming them. Although by now the target for concentrated fire from hostile riflemen, L/Cpl. Weber remained in a dangerously exposed position to shout words of encouragement to his emboldened companions. As he moved forward to attack a fifth enemy soldier, he was mortally wounded.
L/Cpl. Weber's indomitable courage, aggressive fighting spirit and unwavering devotion to duty upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously.
Myself, Linda, and some of his friends he grew up with decided to honor Lester by having a park named after him in his neighborhood. We raised the funds and had a plaque made and mounted on a boulder that now graces the entrance of Lester W. Weber Memorial Park in unincorporated Hinsdale.
Celebrate Woodridge 1999
Linda and I have always had a good relationship with Woodridge Mayor William F. Murphy. The fact that he is also a huge Packer fan is a plus.
Y2K was expected to be a huge eventful turning point everywhere in the world. Some communities had planned celebrations to welcome in the new millennium. Woodridge was no different. It was also the 40th anniversary of the Village of Woodridge. So, who did the mayor tap to help plan this event? Yep. Sucker Bob and Sucker Linda. At first I thought I would just attend the planning meeting to see what it was all about. And, by the way, Linda, would you attend with me? We were hooked. It also looked like they needed some direction.
There was to be a parade that year, a Founders Family Picnic, a St. Patrick’s Day Dinner Dance, a Business Kick-off Reception, and a New Year’s Eve Celebration. Of course, there were $100 raffle tickets that needed to be sold. I worked on the parade and Linda the Raffle Queen worked on selling tickets. She also headed up the Founder’s Day Picnic as well as the St. Patrick’s Dance and the Business Reception. We both helped to organize the New Year’s Eve Celebration.
For all of this, as well as our stature in the community, Linda and I were named the 1999 Woodridge Citizens of the Year.
American Liver Foundation
Following my liver transplant, I was so thankful for having been given a new life that I wanted to give something back. I volunteered to help work with the Illinois Chapter of the American Liver Foundation (ALF). We (Linda once again volunteered) worked on the Annual Liver Walk/Run. Linda set up a ‘Team Bob’ and solicited pledges from anyone and everyone. My entire family joined us and most of them walked the entire route. My buddy, Joe Cantafio, volunteered to bring his guitar and sing a few songs at the Walk. I thought that was mighty brave, since it was on the lakefront in October. We raised quite a bit of money and tied for 1st Place. We also coordinated other fund-raising events for the ALF and I helped with some volunteer work with organ donor awareness.
Journey to Honor
One of our VFW Post members, Mickey Hunt, came up with the idea that since the WWII veterans were getting up there in age, we should do something to honor them for their service to our country. Since the WWII Memorial had recently been dedicated in Washington, D.C., Mickey thought that by helping to arrange for them to visit the memorial would be very fitting.
Mickey’s brother-in-law, Barry Anshell, decided he wanted to help accomplish this with him. Barry took the idea and ran with it. Bob and Linda ran as well. We formed a committee and pooled our resources with the Naperville VFW and got the ball rolling. The surrounding business communities were asked to help support this venture. We held fundraisers, had a Dinner Dance, and before you knew it we had raised enough money to send 40 WWII veterans to Washington, D. C. for a weekend at no expense to them.
Operation Support Our Troops – Illinois
In 2006, I learned of an organization, Operation Support our Troops - IL that collected food and other items that got packed up and shipped to soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was an all-volunteer group comprised of mostly family members of those soldiers that were serving overseas. They were planning a fund-raising concert at Cantigny Park that was going to feature Gary Sinise and his Lt. Dan Band. I had met Gary on a few other occasions and thought this would be a great cause to help with.
Since the company that was providing the production for the concert was owned by a good friend of mine, Jim Killough, I volunteered to help with coordinating the backstage area security. The event went very well and raised over $75,000.
I observed all aspects of how the committee functioned and felt that I had some ideas that could make next year’s event even more successful. Next thing I knew I was the Concert Chairman for the 2007 event. It was decided that Gary Sinise was such a huge success that we should contact him again for another concert. I set up sub-committees and I selected people that I knew I could count on to head these up and away we went. I negotiated Gary’s contract, coordinated the production company, and generally oversaw all aspects of the event. When I say that I selected people that I knew I could count on to head up various aspects, this included Linda, of course. I needed someone to coordinate the sponsor’s tent and the food vendors. This was probably the most important phase of the committee. I knew I had the best talent available and, barring rain, we would have a huge success. It turns out we raised over $350,000! Due to the success of the two years worth of fund-raisers OSOT-IL was able to donate over $100,000 to fund the Fisher House at Hines VA Hospital. Fisher House is a not-for-profit housing that provides a place for out-of-town families to stay while they are visiting their hospitalized veteran relative.
In 1987, on the coattails of the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Parade, I met someone who has become one of my best friends to this day – Joe Cantafio. Joe was a partner in a musical production company called KCM Productions. They provide all of the procuring of musical talent, stage, lighting, etc., for summer festivals and corporate events in the Midwest at the time. Joe also headed up his own band called Jade 50's.
While Joe was playing at the Naperville’s Last Fling that year, Joe invited a bunch of us veterans backstage. Joe was becoming more and more of a supporter of veterans. He seemed to be impressed with the group after spending time with us, hearing about what we did, and some of what we had to deal with after Vietnam. We invited Joe to our next veteran’s meeting. Joe spent more time talking with veterans and their spouses and was hooked. Later that night after Joe returned home, he began writing a song based on what he experienced. Joe had recorded the song on an album and he now plays it at most of his concerts to this day. It is entitled, “They’re All Not on the Wall”.
In 2004, upon Joe’s returning from entertaining the troops in Iraq along with his band, he decided that he wanted to do more for America’s heroes. Joe contacted me about helping him to start a not-for-profit organization to facilitate arranging for entertainment for the bed-ridden veterans in VA hospitals. Together we formed Forgotten Heroes. I shuffle the paperwork and Joe arranges for the talent. We generally spend a week at a time at least twice a year at the Extended Care Unit at Hines VA Hospital providing fun and entertainment for the vets.
Celebrate Woodridge 2009
Since moving to Bolingbrook in 2000 and wanting to spend more time with working around the house, garden, and pool, I decided to semi-retire from volunteer work. I decided that it was someone else’s turn. Except for my two years of volunteering with the American Liver Foundation and Operation Support Our Troops - IL, I pretty much stayed at home. I went to most of my monthly VFW meetings, but that was about it.
Then, once again, Mayor Murphy came calling. It seems that the Village of Woodridge was going to be celebrating their 50 year anniversary in 2009 and remembered our past involvements. I tried to explain to him that we now live in Bolingbrook – not Woodridge. Did I mention that he is a huge Packer fan? How could I say no. Once again, a parade.
When I retired from the Army in October, 1970, I left without having any contact information for anyone that I had served with during my time in the service. The last eleven months of my military service had been spent in various hospitals rehabbing from my wounds. Guys came and went without really getting to know any of them that well.
While I was in Vietnam, I worked as a sniper, mostly with one partner, Mike M. We generally worked as a team alone, either ahead of a patrol or up in a radar tower on LZ Jamie. We had originally been taken out of the field for sniper training, away from our original unit, and then assigned to Echo Company. E Company was made up of a Recon Platoon, a Mortar Platoon, and a Radar Section, all designed to provide security for the LZ. Our buddies came and went. The tendency in Vietnam was to not become very close with anyone for fear of losing a new best friend.
Mike and I did however get a chance to spend some time with a bunch of guys from the Radar Unit in Echo Company. Lee Dworshak was one such person. Ken Havens was another. Ken was killed in action on October 21, 1969.
Around October of 2003, I began doing some research by surfing the internet for 'LZ Jamie' just to see what I would discover. What a find I made! I stumbled upon Fred Andrew’s Links to the Vietnam War. Fred had served with the 1st Cav Division and on his site there was a link to LZ Jamie where I was based. I found a map of the area and some daily reports.
I followed some other links and landed up at the Virtual Wall, a web site that has information about everyone who was killed in Vietnam. Visitors to the site can look up someone’s name and then be directed to a page containing information about the veteran. There is also a place where anyone can post a remembrance similar to a guestbook. I looked up Ken Haven’s page and found a message that was left by Lee. I contacted Lee via the e-mail address that was left on the page and we began corresponding with each other. Lee sent me a CD full of pictures from Vietnam, which actually included a couple of me.
I also did a search on Ken Havens. This led me to the Havens Family web site. I found this site to be very interesting with stories and pictures of generations of Havens. On the Haven’s site is a special section dedicated to Ken. There are stories, pictures, and viewable letters that Ken had written home to his family from Vietnam. It was very eerie reading some of these letters. Ken didn’t mention my name or Lee’s specifically, but he shared some of the times we all spent together in his letters home. I contacted Ken’s brother Russ and we have been corresponding on and off ever since. I called Russ on Veteran’s Day in 2003 and we had a nice talk about Ken and what it was like serving in a combat zone in Vietnam.
While I was attending a Hepatitis C conference out in California in the spring of 2006, Linda and I had made arrangements to meet up with Lee and have lunch together. Lee grew up in the Los Angeles area and we met at a restaurant in Marina del Rey, a local hotspot that was very familiar to Lee from those growing up years. We spent a couple of hours catching up with our lost years.
Lee and I correspond quite often now, mostly via e-mail and video conferencing. While I haven’t seen Lee since 1969, except for the few hours we spent together in California, I feel a special bond with him. It is the camaraderie that is formed by serving together in a combat situation.
Lee has been a tremendous help to me while developing my web site. He designed the header on the home page and edited most of the sections and offered suggestions concerning the overall design.
One of my favorite places to visit is Southern California and I am looking forward to the day I can return and spend more time reminiscing.
AIRBURST - explosion of ammunition in the air
AIR CAV - air cavalry, referring to helicopter-borne infantry
AIT - Advanced Individual Training; the period following Basic Training, specialized training given each soldier based on his MOS (Military Occupational Specialty)
AK-47 - Soviet manufactured Kalashnikov semi-automatic combat assault rifle, fires a 7.62-mm at 600 rounds per minute. The basic weapon of the NVA
ALPHA-ALPHA - automatic ambush, a combination of claymore mines configured to detonate simultaneously when triggered by a trip-wire/battery mechanism
AO - Area of operations
APC - armored personnel carrier. A track vehicle used to transport Army troops or supplies, usually armed with a .50 caliber machine gun
ARC LIGHT OPERATIONS - code name for the devastating aerial raids of B-52 Stratofortresses against enemy positions in Southeast Asia. The first B-52 Arc Light raid took place on June 18, 1965, on a suspected Vietcong base north of Saigon. In November 1965, B-52s directly supported American ground forces for the first time, and were used regularly for that purpose thereafter.
ARCOMS - Army Commendation Medals
ARTICLE 15 - summary disciplinary judgment of a soldier by his commander, could result in fines or confinement in the stockade
ARTY - artillery
ARVN - Army of the Republic of Vietnam (Army of South Vietnam)
BANANA CLIP - banana shaped magazine, standard on the AK-47 assault rifle
BASE CAMP - semi-permanent field headquarters and center for a given unit, usually within that unit's tactical areas responsibility. A unit could operate in or away from its base camp. Base camps usually contained all or part of a given unit's support elements
BATTALION - organizational institution in the Army and Marine Corps. Commanded by a lieutenant colonel, an infantry battalion usually has around 900 people, and an artillery battalion of about 500 people. During the Vietnam War, American battalions were usually much smaller than that
BEEHIVE - a direct-fire artillery round which incorporated steel darts (fleshettes), used as a primary base defense munition against ground attack
BIRD - any aircraft, usually helicopters
BOUNCING BETTY - an antipersonnel mine with two charges. The first propels the explosive charge upward and the other is set to explode at about waist level
BRIGADE - basic military organizational institution. During the Vietnam War, a division was organized into three brigades, with each brigade commanded by a colonel. A division consists of approximately 20,000 people
BRING SMOKE - to direct intense artillery fire on an enemy position
C-4 - plastic, putty textured explosive carried by infantry soldiers. It burns when lit and would boil water in seconds instead of minutes. Also used to heat c-rations in the field and blow up bunkers
CACHE - hidden supplies
CAV - nickname for air cavalry
C and C - command and control
CHARLIE, CHARLES, CHUCK Vietcong - short for the phonetic representation of "VC": Victor Charlie"
CHERRY - a new troop replacement
CHICKEN PLATE - chest protector (body armor) worn by helicopter gunners
CHICOM – Chinese Communist
CHURCH KEY - bottle/can opener
CIB – Combat Infantry Badge
CLACKER - firing device ("exploder") for triggering claymore mines and other electrically initiated demolitions
CLAYMORE – an antipersonnel mine when detonated, propelled small steel projectiles in a 60-degree fan-shaped pattern to a maximum distance of 100 meters
COBRA – an AH-1G attack helicopter armed with rockets and machine guns
COMPANY - organizational institution commanded by a captain and consisting of two or more platoons; in Vietnam, varied widely in size according to mission
C's, C-rations, C-rats, Charlie rats, or combat rations - canned meals used in military operations
CONCERTINA WIRE - coiled barbed wire with razor type ends
DAPSONE – a small pill taken periodically by U.S. troops, ostensibly to prevent malaria but actually meant to prevent leprosy
DMZ - demilitarized zone
DONUT DOLLY - a female American Red Cross volunteer
DUSTOFF - nickname for a medical evacuation helicopter or mission
E and E - escape and evasion
ELEPHANT GRASS - tall, sharp-edged grass found in the highlands of Vietnam
EM - enlisted man
ETS – estimated time of separation from military service
FATIGUES – standard combat uniform
FIGHTING HOLE - foxhole with sandbag protection and sometimes an elevated roof of sheet metal, reinforced with sand bags. Sized for one or two troops, fighting holes might be dispersed around a company or battery area for defensive use during a ground attack
FIRECRACKER - artillery round incorporating many small bomblets which are ejected over a target area and explode in "bouncing-betty" fashion -- almost simultaneously; name comes from the fast popping sound (best heard at a distance)
FIREBASE – temporary artillery encampment used for fire support of forward ground operations
FIREFIGHT - exchange of small arms fire between opposing units
FLAK JACKET – heavy fiberglass-filled vest worn for protection from shrapnel
FLARE – illumination projectile, hand-fired or shot from artillery, mortars, or air
FORWARD OBSERVER – a person attached to a field unit to coordinate the placement of direct or indirect fire from ground, air, and naval forces
FRAG – fragmentation grenade
FRAGGING - assassination of an officer by his own troops, usually by means of a grenade
FREEDOM BIRD - any aircraft carrying soldiers back to the "world" (the U.S.A.)
FRIENDLIES - U.S. troops, allies, or anyone not on the other side
FRIENDLY FIRE - euphemism used during the war in Vietnam to describe air, artillery, or small-arms fire from American forces mistakenly directed at American positions
GOOK – derogatory term for an Asian. Derived from a Korean slang for “person”
GREEN-EYE - starlight scope; light amplifying telescope, used to see at night
GRUNT - popular nickname for an infantryman in Vietnam; supposedly derived from the sound a soldier made from lifting up his rucksack
GSW – gunshot wound
HAMLET – a small rural village
HANOI HILTON - nickname American prisoners of war used to describe the Hoa Loa Prison in Hanoi
HOOTCH - house, living quarters or a native hut
HUMP – grunt term meaning to march or walk carrying a rucksack in the field
I CORPS – the northernmost military region in South Vietnam
II Corps – the Central Highlands military region in South Vietnam
III Corps – the densely populated, fertile military region between Saigon and the Central Highlands
IV Corps – the marshy Mekong Delta southernmost military region in South Vietnam
IMMERSION FOOT – condition resulting from feet being submerged in water for a prolonged period of time, causing cracking and bleeding
IN COUNTRY - Vietnam
IRREGULARS - armed individuals and groups not members of the regular armed forces, police, or other internal security forces
JAG - Judge Advocate General. The legal department of the Armed Services
KIA - Killed In Action
KIT CARSON SCOUT – former Viet Cong who act as guides for U.S. military units
KLICK, K - short for kilometer (0.62 miles)
LBJ - Long Binh Jail, a military stockade in Long Binh
LEATHERNECK - term for a Marine (Marines wore leather neckbands from 1798-1880 for protection of the neck during sword combat)
LIFER - career soldier
LIGHT UP - to fire on the enemy
LIMA LIMA - land line. Refers to telephone communications between two points on the ground
LITTERS – stretchers to carry wounded
LOACH – a light observation helicopter (LOH) used to draw enemy fire so that cobras can come and make the kill
LP – Listening Post. Usually a four man position set up at night around the perimeter away from the main body of troopers
LRRP – Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol. An elite team usually composed of five to seven men who go deep into the jungle to observe enemy activity without initiating contact
LT – lieutenant
LURPS – dehydrated food packages that replace c-rations
LZ - landing zone. Usually a small clearing secured temporarily for the landing of resupply helicopters. Some became more permanent and eventually became base camps of fire support bases
M-14 – a 7.62mm caliber rifle that fired semi and full automatic. Used in the early portion of the Vietnam War
M-16 – the standard military rifle used in Vietnam from 1966 on
M-60 – the standard lightweight machine gun
M-79 – hand-held grenade launcher
MAD MINUTE - concentrated fire of all weapons for a brief period of time at maximum rate
MARS – Military Affiliate Radio Station. Used by soldiers to call home via Signal Corps and ham radio equipment
MASH – Mobile Army Surgical Hospital
MEDIVAC – medical evacuation from the field via helicopter
M.I.A. - Missing In Action
MONTAGNARD – a French term for several tribes of mountain people inhabitation the hills and mountains of central and northern Vietnam
MORTAR – consisting of three parts; a steel tube, base plate, and a tri-pod. A round is dropped in the tube striking a firing pin, causing the projectile to leave the tube at a high angle
MOS – military occupational specialty
MP – military police
MPC - military payment currency. The script soldiers were paid in
MULE – a small motorized platform often used for transporting supplies and personnel
NAPALM – a jellied petroleum substance which burns fiercely and used against enemy personnel
NUMBER ONE - good
NUMBER TEN – bad
P-38 – a tiny collapsible can opener
PLATOON - approximately 45 men belonging to a company. Commanded by a lieutenant, a platoon is an organizational unit composed of two or more squads
PONCHO LINER – a nylon insert to the military rain poncho, used as a blanket
POP SMOKE – to ignite a smoke grenade to signal an aircraft
POW - Prisoner of War
PRC-25 – Portable Radio Communications, Model 25. A back-packed FM receiver-transmitter used for short distance communications. The range of the radio was 5-10 kilometers, depending on the weather
PTSD - post-traumatic stress disorder
PUCKER FACTOR - assessment of the "fear factor", the difficulty or risk involved in an upcoming mission
PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON – an AC-47 propeller-driven aircraft with three miniguns capable of firing 6,000 rounds per minute per gun for a total of 18,000 per minute
PUNJI STAKES – sharpened bamboo stakes used in a primitive, but useful pit trap
QUONSET HUT - a prefabricated structure of corrugated galvanized iron used, along with sandbags, to house soldiers on an LZ
QUAD-50s – a four-barreled assembly of .50 caliber machine guns
RECON - reconnaissance
RED LZ - landing zone under hostile fire
ROCK 'N' ROLL - to put an M16-A1 rifle on full automatic fire
R and R - rest-and-recreation vacation taken during a one-year duty tour in Vietnam. Out-of-country R and R might be in Bangkok, Hawaii, Tokyo, Australia, Hong Kong, Manila, Penang, Taipei, Kuala Lampur, or Singapore. In-country R and R locations were at Vung Tau or China Beach
ROK – soldier form the Republic of Korea
RUCKSACK – a metal-framed backpack used by the infantry to carry supplies
RVN - Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)
SAPPERS - North Vietnamese Army or Vietcong demolition commandos
SAR - search and rescue
SEARCH AND CLEAR - offensive military operations to sweep through areas to locate and attack the enemy
SEARCH AND DESTROY - offensive operations designed to find and destroy enemy forces rather than establish permanent government control; also, called "Zippo missions"
SHAKE 'N' BAKE - officer straight out of OCS (Officer Candidate School) without any combat experience
SHORT, SHORT-TIME, SHORT-TIMER - individual with little time remaining in Vietnam
SKATE - goof off
SKS – Simonov 7.62mm semi-automatic carbine
SLEEPER - an undercover agent or a mole
SLICK – a UH-1 helicopter used for transporting troops in tactical air assault operations
SMOKE GRENADE – a grenade that released brightly colored smoke. Used for signaling choppers. Yellow was a safe LZ and red was a hot LZ
SORTIE - one aircraft making one takeoff and landing to conduct the mission for which it was scheduled
SPIDER HOLE – a camouflaged enemy foxhole
SPOOKY – an AC-47 propeller-driven aircraft with three miniguns
STAND-DOWN - period of rest and refitting in which all operational activity, except for security, is stopped
STARLIGHT SCOPE – an infrared night scope to intensify images at night by using reflected light from the moon, stars, or any other source of light
STEEL POT – the standard military issue helmet
TET – the Buddhist lunar New Year, Buddha’s birthday
TRACER – a round of ammunition chemically treated to glow so that its flight can be followed
TRIAGE – the procedure for deciding the order in which to treat casualties
TRIP FLARE – a ground flare triggered by a trip wire used to notify the approach of the enemy
UH-1H – a Huey helicopter
VC, CONG - Vietcong
VIETCONG - Communist forces fighting the South Vietnamese government
VIETMINH - Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, the Vietnamese Independence League
WHITE PHOSPHORUS – an explosive round from artillery, mortars, rockets, or grenades. Also a type of aerial bomb. When the rounds exploded, a huge puff of white smoke would appear from the burning phosphorus
WIA - Wounded In Action
WP – white phosphorus
(THE) WORLD - United States
XO – Executive Officer
ZIPPO - flamethrower; also the brand name of a popular cigarette lighter
ZIPPO MISSION - search and destroy mission
ZULU - casualty report, also the phonetic pronunciation of the letter "Z"
ASCITES - an accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity. Most commonly due to cirrhosis and severe liver disease
BILIRUBIN - a brownish yellow substance found in bile. It is produced when the liver breaks down old red blood cells. Bilirubin is then removed from the body through the stool
CELLCEPT - used in combination with other medications to keep the body from attacking and rejecting a transplanted organ (e.g., kidney, liver, heart). It belongs to a class of medications called immunosuppressants. This medication works by lowering the body's immune system activity
CHOLANGIOGRAM - a procedure that is used primarily to look at the larger bile ducts within the liver and the bile ducts outside the liver. The procedure can be used to locate gallstones within these bile ducts. It also can be used to identify other causes of obstruction to the flow of bile, for example, narrowings (strictures) of the bile ducts and cancers that may impair the normal flow of bile
CIRRHOSIS - a slowly progressing disease in which healthy liver tissue is replaced with scar tissue, eventually preventing the liver from functioning properly. The scar tissue blocks the flow of blood through the liver and slows the processing of nutrients, hormones, drugs, and naturally produced toxins. It also slows the production of proteins and other substances made by the liver
EDEMA - swelling that is caused by fluid trapped in their body’s tissues. Edema happens most often in the feet, ankles, and legs. Other parts of the body, such as the face and hands, can also be affected
END-STAGE LIVER DISEASE - an irreversible condition that leads to the imminent complete failure of the liver. It is often a consequence of chronic liver diseases, and is one of the most extended causes of death in the western hemisphere. It may be the final stage of many liver diseases. Cirrhosis, viral hepatitis, genetic disorders, metastasic cancer in the liver, autoimmune disorders, obesity and toxins and drugs can be factors that cause end stage liver disease and liver failure
FIBROSIS - the accumulation of tough, fibrous scar tissue in the liver
HEPATIC ENCEPHALOPATHY - deterioration of brain function that occurs because toxic substances normally removed by the liver build up in the blood and reach the brain. Symptoms are those of decreased brain function, especially reduced alertness and confusion. In the earliest stages, subtle changes appear in logical thinking, personality, and behavior. The person's mood may change, and judgment may be impaired. Normal sleep patterns may be disturbed. At any stage of encephalopathy, the person's breath may have a musty sweet odor. As the disorder progresses, the hands cannot be held steady when the person stretches out the arms, resulting in a crude flapping motion of the hands (asterixis). Also, the person usually becomes drowsy and confused, and movements and speech become sluggish. Disorientation is common. Eventually, the person may lose consciousness and lapse into a coma
HEPATITIS C - an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver and leads to inflammation. Most people infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) have no symptoms. In fact, most people don't know they have the hepatitis C infection until liver damage shows up, decades later, during routine medical tests. Hepatitis C is one of several hepatitis viruses and is generally considered to be among the most serious of these viruses
HEPATOLOGIST - a specialist in diagnosing and treating liver disease
JAUNDICE - a yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes, and body fluids. It is caused by an increase in the amount of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin is a yellowish pigment that is produced from the breakdown of heme, primarily from hemoglobin and red blood cells
LACTULOSE - a special type of laxative used to treat constipation and to assist in the management of a disorder called hepatic encephalopathy
LASIX - used in the treatment of high blood pressure and other conditions that require the elimination of excess fluid (water) from the body. These conditions include congestive heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver, and kidney disease
PEGINTERFERON ALFA-2a - a long acting interferon. Interferons are proteins released in the body in response to viral infections. Interferons are important for fighting viruses in the body, for regulating reproduction of cells, and for regulating the immune system. Peginterferon alfa-2a is a specific interferon used to treat chronic hepatitis C
PARACENTESIS - a procedure to take out fluid that has collected in the belly (peritoneal fluid). This fluid buildup is called ascites. Ascites may be caused by infection, inflammation, an injury, or other conditions, such as cirrhosis or cancer. The fluid is taken out using a long, thin needle put through the belly. The fluid is sent to a lab and studied to find the cause of the fluid buildup. Paracentesis also may be done to take the fluid out to relieve belly pressure or pain in people with cancer or cirrhosis
PERITONEOSCOPY - internal examination of the peritoneum with a peritoneoscope passed through an incision in the abdominal wall. Also called celioscopy, ventroscopy
PORTAL HYPERTENSION - an increase in the pressure within the portal vein (the vein that carries blood from the digestive organs to the liver). The increase in pressure is caused by a blockage in the blood flow through the liver. Increased pressure in the portal vein causes large veins (varices) to develop across the esophagus and stomach to bypass the blockage. The varices become fragile and can bleed easily
PREDNISONE - a corticosteroid hormone (glucocorticoid). It decreases the body's immune system's response to various diseases to reduce symptoms such as swelling and allergic-type reactions. It is used to treat conditions such as arthritis, blood disorders, breathing problems, certain cancers, eye problems, immune system diseases, and skin diseases
PROGRAF - an immunosuppressive drug whose main use is after allogeneic organ transplant to reduce the activity of the patient's immune system and so lower the risk of organ rejection. It reduces T-cell and interleukin-2 (IL-2) activity
RHEUMATIC FEVER - an inflammatory disease that may develop two to three weeks after a Group A streptococcal infection (such as strep throat or scarlet fever). It is believed to be caused by antibody cross-reactivity and can involve the heart, joints, skin, and brain. Acute rheumatic fever commonly appears in children between ages 5 and 15
RIBAVIRIN - used with another medication called an interferon to treat hepatitis C. Ribavirin is in a class of antiviral medications called nucleoside analogues. It works by stopping the virus that causes hepatitis C from spreading inside the body.