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V.A. Hospital Syracuse, NY

Thirty-Three days ago, I was walking through an Auto Parts yard looking for a rim for my car. It was a cold wintery day. The office checked and found my rim was most likely located in row 74. This was pretty deep into the yard. I was at row 72 or 73 when I hit a large patch of ice. It was covered with snow. It was the extreme ice that you simply cannot stand on. My feet and legs went forward and up instantly, and down I went, this 6-foot body, flat on my back. I am 73 years old. I finally learned what it was like to have a bad day.

This story is about heroes. I am expecting a complete recovery. I will be fine. Thanks to heroes. Heroes of the finest kind. They wake up every day and go to work. They save our lives, and they fix our broken bodies. They are there for us every day. And when one of us has a bad day, when our body is broke or in the jaws of death, we go to them, and they bring us back and we get another chance. Yes, heroes of the finest kind.

I was deep in the auto yard laying on a huge sheet of ice. I could not breathe. I could not move. It was 9 degrees. It was a gloomy gray day. I was thinking, this might be it. I have to a find a breath. I calmed myself and sought short gasps. They came and slowly my airways began to work. The ice was so slick that even without injury you could not stand on it. I was hurt bad and did not know what I could do. I heard a roar and looked down the one lane path. There was huge payloader heading my way. The kind that lifts and moves cars. I thought “if he doesn’t see me, this is definitely it.” I could not get up. I tried to roll off the ice. I could not turn over. The driver saw me. He noted my dilemma and must have perceived my thinking. He stopped a good distance away and came over and helped me up. Once up I was able to stand and walk. I found that I could stand or sit straight up only. I made it back inside. I told them they needed to salt. The pain was excruciating. I could not wait for an ambulance. I got in my vehicle. I found I could sit. And I drove to a place of heroes, the finest that we can be; The Veterans Administration Hospital. They took a day where I thought I may not see another, and here I am, on the mend. I cannot tell you how awesome they were and how grateful I am.

I served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 7th Special Forces. I was ready and  willing to go to Vietnam. Assignments and timing saved me from battle. I was indeed lucky. I did 18 months with the 173rd on Okinawa. That they were going was classified and 3 weeks after I left, the entire Brigade went to Nam and fought more than any single outfit since the Revolutionary War. I went back to the 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg. This was the group where the 5th Special Forces was sent from and to Vietnam. So, in my peaceful experience I served with warriors, the finest men I have ever known, hardened by battle, but by far, most with gentle souls that fought for their families and God and Country. 50 years later my bond and pride for these outfits is as fresh as ever. I never will forget one of them. The living and the dead.

And for them I detest with everything I am worth a politician that is self-serving. Which is nearly all of them. Their greedy failure to lead has reduced this land. I started a fresh paragraph here because they do not belong anywhere near the greatness that I knew, that was willing to, or that did give their life for the beauty of the wondrous pursuit of this great land, that was once the beacon for human decency and fairness for the entire world.

Back to the ice. I knew I was hurt badly and I might not make it. Once the air came, I laid there for about 5 minutes before the payloader came. The ice was too slick and I just could not roll or get up. I had my moment of fear, but it was in keeping with fight. I never gave up. I found my air. When the payloader came I was moving a few inches at a time on my back seeking ground.   

I knew I had to make it to the VA. From the moment I arrived I was treated like I really mattered as are all patients. I am not sure how this column is turning out, but the reason I am writing it is because of the heart, the talent, the compassion and the professionalism of everyone that came my way. And there were many. I remember thinking “How does one place employ so many wonderful people?” From the kindness and clear expertise of the doctors, to the nurses that would check on you even when you left to another area, to the technicians and PT, and OT and the gentleman that came by every day keeping things clean and proud of his very important role in patient care. My sodium levels fell as my body sent it to the wounded areas. Low sodium is hard on the brain and dangerous confusion and disorientation set in. All with grave pain. Five cracked and two broken ribs and a small fracture in my spine. The next thing I knew I was in the intensive care unit.

The pain was excruciating and just would not subside. Oxycodone, each pill the home of an Angel and the home of a devil. This was the medicine that finally gave me relief from an unending agony. I will never forget the moment the pain subsided and I laid down to rest. Oxycodone is an opiate very much the same as heroin. It works wonders with pain. -However, it is highly addictive and can take your soul in just a few weeks. I had a very sad experience with alcohol in my youth. That was 39 years ago, yet the price is still in my days, and the lesson was learned. I still need some pain relief however it is tolerable. I used oxy for nearly four weeks. It doesn’t just stop the pain. It makes you feel ok. That is its’ ploy as it seeks your soul. It was when I had an acceptable day but still wanted the pill that great anger set in. I knew what was happening and I stopped that day. 6 days ago. My remaining prescription is in the toilet. Oxycodone is the home of good and evil. It has only one place and that is the arena of pain so bad that one would rather not exist. The danger far exceeds usage in any other circumstance.

The heroes at VA cautioned me. They were concerned. I explained my past and let them know I was keenly alert for the signs of any addiction. And I had the will to never allow it. Yet my pain had to be relieved. They kept an eye on me. I kept my appointments and my doctor wanted me to stop. We settled on one more week. I quit 2 days later.

I never fought. I was never in battle danger. I served in two awesome outfits. Nearly everyone was or became battle hardened. In the years following Vietnam I felt it important that the glory went to those that fought. For this reason, I did not mention the Green Berets for 25 years except to a very rare few. I did not fight. I would take no credit for being in an outfit. I knew a regular army infantryman is as much a hero as any Navy Seal or Green Beret.

My days in the Special Forces were at an awesome time in history. One day the First Sergeant asked me if I would like to assist showing John Wayne our training area. That was pretty neat and the following year he made the movie. Barry Sadler came back from Vietnam and was assigned to my group. He used to sing to us on the porch of our barracks. The Ballad of the Green Berets was number one in the land and Barry was a real neat guy. Roger Donlon and Vernon Beeson also returned from Nam that year and were assigned to my group and company.

Captain Donlon won the Medal of Honor and SSG Vernon Beeson, a good friend, won the Silver Star in the same battle. I was so impressed when I met the Captain that when I saluted, I knocked my beret off my head. The Captain picked it up. I am an old guy now and I have stories to tell that I have never told. But for now, I want to offer with chills of patriotism that each individual I encountered at the  Veterans Administration Hospital in Syracuse, New York showed me they were clearly made of the exact same greatness as those that I knew that I mention here and that I served with.

In almost every story, usually over a beer in Fayetteville, the teller spoke of the Medics that came to the aid of the fallen. How brave and noble can one be? It humbled me then and does till this day. And like most of us, all I can do is imagine that reality.

I experienced this kind of greatness at the VA Hospital over and over. You made me proud to recall my service as you exemplified all that I knew in two of the finest outfits ever to be. Thank you one and all. De Oppresso Liber.

Bill McClellan