By Bill Derby, Publisher
Editor’s note: final installment of Vietnam War combat veterans stories in honor of those who served. Vietnam era war veterans will be honored Saturday at the VA starting at 9 a.m. The public is invited to attend.
My good friend, Jim McNab, is still in a battle for his life fighting the effects of his contact with Agent Orange. He’s recovered from his serious battle wounds but still has bouts with his leukemia.
Thousands of Vietnam War veterans have contracted numerous diseases from the herbicide used in Vietnam and many have died. I personally know two Johnson City Vietnam veteran helicopter pilots who sprayed Agent Orange over the jungle canopy and died from the exposure.
Jim was an infantryman in Vietnam and his amazing story includes cheating death three times. I knew about the first one but not the other two.
Jim shares his first brush with death, “I was sitting in the jungle against a tree. It was hot, sweat dripping off my nose. I heard a rustling close by. I cradled my M-60 automatic weapon ready to fire at a Viet Cong creeping through the jungle. Thank God. It was only the biggest rat I had ever seen with large protruding eyes. I decided not to shoot. It would draw attention to my position.”
Later that fateful day on Nov. 6, 1966, Jim was point man on patrol with Charlie Company, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, near the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh, war zone C.
He continues, “We were attempting to rescue a trapped unit during the ‘Attleboro’ battle. It was the largest fight of the war so far. I was walking point when I was hit by an AK-47 round tearing through my left shoulder. I think it was a sniper, common during that fighting. My buddies dragged me out of the line of fire and we spent six hours fighting our way out of the jungle to a waiting medi-vac flight. The photo I have right after I was wounded was taken from a frame from an NBC news film. A reporter, soundman and cameraman were right there in the jungle interviewing me as rounds were going off all around us. The film was shown on The Today Show and later that evening on the Nightly News with Chet and David,” Jim continues. “I don’t know what happened to the rest of my unit but understand we had heavy casualties.”
According to battle reports from that day, the VC had the advantage of firing from well-prepared positions along firing lanes that were close to the ground, well-concealed and hard to spot. They had also placed snipers high in the trees, tied to the trunks–either to keep them from leaving their firing position or to prevent them from falling out of the trees if they were hit.
Jim was sent to a hospital in Japan in an effort to save his badly damaged left shoulder and arm. He spent the next three months in the hospital. He was then sent to Korea to finish his Asian tour. (More on that later in the story.)
His second brush with death came some 40 years later in 2006. While walking in his neighborhood he told his wife something was wrong. He was extremely out of breath and unbelievably tired. He went to see his doctor and after a blood test was told he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). His white cell count was off the charts. He was facing another battle from the effects of the Vietnam War.
“I thought getting shot was the end of my Vietnam experience. It wasn’t,” Jim said.
He had been sprayed with Agent Orange while in the jungle. His oncologist told him that most likely a mutant gene had lain dormant in his body from the dioxin in Agent Orange for 40 years and then began to produce an excessive number of white blood cells. Jim started a six-month sequence of chemo therapy in Atlanta. His leukemia went into remission.
Jim’s next battle happened quickly. After a normal evening while walking to the door he collapsed with cardiac arrest. His heart had stopped beating. His wife, Kaylyn, frantically called 911 saying her husband had collapsed and had no heartbeat. She started CPR and also remembered their good friend living two doors down, a physician, Dr. Robert Albin.
Dr. Albin rushed to help. After 10 minutes the emergency rescue arrived and worked on Jim 10 more minutes finally getting a heartbeat. Over 20 minutes with no heartbeat had left little hope for Jim’s recovery.
According to Dr. Albin, a pulmonologist, after five minutes of no oxygen getting to the brain, the cells start to deteriorate with severe brain damage. Jim was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital.
It happened that Dr. Albin had been teaching therapeutic hypothermia at St. Joseph’s to other doctors. The therapy lowers the body’s temperature to save brain cells from damage. But after no heart beat for 20 minutes he didn’t hold out much hope for Jim recovering brain function much less surviving to continue a normal life.
Dr. Albin started the therapeutic hypothermia treatment with cold saline, ice and a cooling blanket. They lowered Jim’s body temperature to 89 degrees. Dr. Albin had presented five classes on the treatment but had never performed the procedure on a patient, much less his friend and neighbor. Dr. Albin said he guessed he was teaching the treatment for a reason.
After a few days Jim’s eyes opened but he didn’t talk. Dr. Albin stopped by a day later to check on Jim. He leaned over his friend and said, “Jim, can you hear me?”
Jim slowly nodded his head in the affirmative. He was later checked by a neurologist who gave Jim a clean bill of health and confirmed Jim would make a full recovery.
Dr. Albin told a news reporter that when he was driving home and knew that Jim would be okay, he broke down sobbing realizing something truly extraordinary had happened to both Jim and himself.
Later Jim was told he had contracted a serious virus that attacked his heart muscle causing the cardiac arrest. His immune system had been compromised from chemo therapy allowing the virus into his system, a continuous battle resulting from his Agent Orange contact.
I still keep in contact with my good friend to check on him. We just talked a few weeks ago. He was selling his home in Michigan and moving south again.
While I was stationed in Korea we started to get soldiers who had been wounded in Vietnam assigned to our I Corps headquarters. At the time we didn’t think much about it. Guys were walking around with crutches, canes or limping. A photographer assigned to our newspaper had a foot wound, shot while getting on a helicopter in Vietnam.
Another guy had been accidently shot by an M-79 grenade launcher by his buddy who was trying to help him out of a Vietnam swamp. The grenade did not explode since it needed to spin in the air before becoming armed. The wound reached from his knee to his ankle.
I never could figure out why these men, like Jim McNab who had spent three months in a hospital in Japan, weren’t sent home to be with their families to recover. I was told they had to finish out their Asian tour of duty.
About 20 years later in a business meeting I was talking to a retired colonel and telling him about these recovering wounded from Vietnam being sent to Korea. He told me flat out.
“You know why they were sent to Korea, don’t you?” the colonel asked rhetorically. “The Pentagon brass and politicians didn’t want the American public to see those recovering war veterans limping around in the United States!”
That statement answered a question I had pondered for years. It was a lousy way to treat our combat veterans who have endured pain and hardship. Many today continue to battle their memories or physical pain.