There was a moment, listening to Dennis Haines’s story, that shook me. It began one life-changing night in December, 1968 in Viet Nam as first told by his buddy John Miller.
“Our mission was to encircle a village. We called it a cordon. Our squad, moved farther down the road to a point where there was a pathway that led into the village. It was on this path that Dennis and I were sent to act as a listening post, waiting for darkness until the rest of the company would join us.
“There was a problem. It was too dark. Our night vision scope could not help us; too overcast, no starlight. Also the rice crop was high. Anyone could crawl behind it without being seen. Had we seen anyone however, what would we do? Should we shoot them, do nothing if they appear unarmed? Call to them in the darkness? This was never discussed. We strained to see. Dennis thought he heard a noise to our front. I had not heard anything.
“In an instant, a barrage of bullets and two RPG rounds slammed into our position. Instinctively, I rolled back off the dike into the flooded patty. The gunfire stopped in less than two seconds. I was stunned, unhurt but could not control my breathing or my shaking. Dennis showed no signs of life. I felt that the enemy was now going to move in to finish us off. I began to lurch through the rice back to the road to a position of relative safety. No sooner had I begun to retreat then Dennis came to life, began to call out and sit up. I immediately spun around in the muddy water, grabbed him by the collar, and held him down.
“Finally it dawned on me to get my rifle and be ready to return fire if necessary. Cautiously, I called to the troops on the road. A lone solder came forward. He was the platoon leader. He ordered the others to come forward to get Dennis, put him on my poncho and drag him back to the road, while he and I would stand shoulder to shoulder as rear guards to cover the withdrawal.
“With our squad gathered around, I cradled Dennis, held his hand and promised that he was going to be okay and return to the world back home, safe away from here. The dust-off chopper soon arrived with its bright search lights, whirling rotor blades and noisy high intensity turbine engine. Moments later he was gone. His days in combat had come to an abrupt end.”
After reading John Miller’s account of that night, what shook me were two things: first, the realization that this was not John Wayne charging over some hill in The Green Berets. Dennis, John and the rest of his company are the stuff of real heroes making the best of a bad situation and in Dennis’s case, paying a high price for it; the second realization was the fact that in 1968, having been blessed with an high draft number, I was safely ensconced in my first year of college in the San Fernando Valley studying music, film, and philosophy thousands of miles away from a war that many on campus could not understand much less completely support.
After arriving at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, Drs. John Baldwin and Floyd Robinson operated on Dennis’s brain. Baldwin, a vascular surgeon, was asked to go behind the curtain and help this desperately wounded soldier. “How do I put this guy back together?” Baldwin thought. “How do I put him back together so he can survive and be somewhat whole?”
“After a stormy post-operative week,” Baldwin writes, “it was apparent [Dennis] would live, and he followed the usual path to Japan.”
Dennis tells me his story from there.
“I left Japan and arrived at Walter Reed Hospital on Christmas Day. I couldn’t use my left side because of my brain had been injured on my right – no peripheral vision from my eyes down to my toes.
“Before I was drafted in 1967, I was studying to be an architect. All that was gone, now.
“I was eventually transferred to the Lebanon VA hospital just a few miles from Hershey, Pennsylvania where I remained in rehab for two years.
“In 1970, I got a job in the print shop of the planning and construction division of the maintenance department at Hershey Medical Center at Penn State. It took me a long time to do everything with only one hand. However, in 1990 when computers came on the scene, I was able to work much more effectively. Now, I not only got to draw, I was going into the field to follow-up on several projects.
“I knew I had to stay focused on the big picture. That was getting me going as much as physically possible with the amount of life I hopefully had in front of me. I wanted to feel that I could again be productive and have a real place in the work force. I did and was able to get back into design architecture and drafting!”
In 2004, Baldwin nominated Dennis for the Images of Bravery Award. In part, the nomination reads:
“For ten years, [Dennis] supported his wife and two sons at his job, studying at night to get as much education as possible in the new field of ‘computer design.’ He discovered that the computer didn’t care if he was paralyzed on the left side, and using his still intact left brain and skilled right hand, Dennis became extremely proficient at drafting, planning and space-organization.
“Armed with samples of his work, he approached the Medical Center’s Engineering Department, won that executive position and became a pivotal force in designing the burgeoning new hospital complex.
“In 1992, [Dennis] was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, no doubt from the nearly twenty blood transfusions we gave him following his initial injury. The current chemotherapy regimen is difficult and often exhausting, but Dennis gets to work each day, and bears no bitterness to either the men who drafted him or those who shot him, forever changing his life. He could have come home, lay down and quit; instead, he chose to fight and wage what is obviously a life-long struggle to prevail against his disability and his memories. His contributions to family, community and to fellow veterans would be impressive for any individual, but to have accomplished all of this as a hemi-plegic, from a wheelchair, is unbelievable.”
Although I watched nightly news updates of Viet Nam, I remained comfortably insulated from the realities of a war that Dennis and so many others were engaged in all those years ago.
At one point during our conversation, I asked him how old he was. Recognizing that he was only a few months older than me, I felt a strange mix of gratitude, for not having been drafted, and embarrassment for not having done something more meaningful at that time. But then Dennis’s final words of advice say it all:
“No matter what might happen to you in life – physically or mentally – stay focused on your future and always try to fulfill the dreams that you had, and set goals to get as close as you can to them! It worked that way for me miraculously. Right now life is good!”
Dennis continues to volunteer at the VA hospital, helping patients dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.