Highly-decorated Vietnam vet now faces different kind of battle
Posted: Monday, May 17, 2010 9:05 pm
By JOHN BRANNON
A few days ago, surgeons at Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah, Ky., removed about half of David Stephenson’s skull and put it in his abdomen for safekeeping. It’s still there.
The operation was necessary to relieve cranial swelling brought on by a stroke May 1.
When the skullpiece will be returned to its rightful place depends on how well his body responds to treatment. Meanwhile, he is under 24-hour care in the hospital’s critical care unit. His wife, Kellie, is constantly at his side.
Wednesday, Stephenson sent word that he was well enough to receive a visitor. About 10 a.m., a nosy newspaper man arrived with a lone tape recorder and a lot of questions.
The Messenger had learned the David Stephenson story is perhaps the best kept secret in northwest Tennessee. Who would have thought that all these years, a genuine hero — little known, never celebrated — from the Vietnam War era lived right here in Union City under the community’s collective nose?
He is a sight to see, this 63-year-old combat veteran, a pleasure to meet and a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit. That he would survive a major stroke, endure brain surgery and be sitting up in bed a few days later chatting with a visitor would seem miraculous to most. He dismisses it with a touch of humor. “I’ve been told I’m a tough old bird,” he quips.
Indeed, he is “a tough old bird,” as the sinister scar on his bald head attests. It looks like a big question mark inscribed by a sharp knife. This is where surgeons entered and removed part of the skull. They closed their work and the work site with 66 metal staples. Since then, 33 have been removed.
He was born and raised in the Friendship community of Dyer County, the son of the late William A. Stephenson and Emily Stephenson.
In the 1960s, when the Vietnam war was at its peak in casualties and at its low mark in public support, a young David Stephenson was a student at the University of Tennessee at Martin. But his plans for graduating with an undergraduate degree in economics and marketing were put on hold when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968.
After basic training and AIT — advanced individual training — in the fine art of foot soldiering, which is to say “infantry,” he was assigned to a unit in the 101st Airborne Division. Ultimately, he wound up in Vietnam in Company B, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 502nd Infantry Brigade. His job was radio operator, meaning he wore a heavy radio backpack known in Army jargon as the AN/PRC-25. He was to stay with the platoon leader, a commissioned officer who needed to communicate with headquarters and support elements such as artillery and air support. The radio’s long “whip” antenna was nothing less than a good target for enemy snipers, he said.
March 21, 1969, was a landmark day in the life of young Stephenson, whose travels before being drafted into military service had been few and far between. Like many other conscripts of the time, he was swept out of a civilian lifestyle and placed in a hard and harsh military regimen alien to his raising. But he and they adjusted, practically overnight. The vast majority made good soldiers.
But no one expected, probably not even Stephenson himself, a young soldier to do what he did that fateful day. In terms of rank and training and in the eyes of the Army, he was far from qualified to act in any major leadership capacity. He was an enlisted man, a specialist E-4, a radio operator. He had not attended any of the prestigious leadership schools such as the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga. Such plums are reserved for career commissioned and noncommissioned officers, not for draftees who serve the mandatory two years and are done with it.
And yet, when push came to shove, when the platoon leader lay dead and the platoon sergeant was seriously wounded, a side of him long dormant surfaced. He took over. He took command. He had the right stuff.
The incident — an ambush by North Vietnamese soldiers — took place at a remote spot near the infamous A Shau Valley, which is located in western Thua Thien province in northern South Vietnam. A website states the 25-mile long valley was an arm of the Ho Chi Minh Trail funneling troops and supplies toward Hue and Danang. In the northern end of the valley was a major North Vietnamese Army staging area. The valley became a major battleground.
General Order Number 4273 issued by Headquarters, 101st Airborne Division and dated May 5, 1969, officially awards the Silver Star medal to Spc.-4 Stephenson. A narrative accompanying the award tells a compelling story.
“For gallantry in action in the Republic of Vietnam on 21 March 1969. Specialist Stephenson distinguished himself while serving as a radio telephone operator in the third platoon of Company B, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry.
“The third platoon was moving as lead element on a reconnaissance in force mission against a suspected enemy base camp near the A Shau Valley. As the platoon moved up a ridge, it received a heavy volume of automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenade and machine gun fire from a well-fortified enemy force. The lead squad was pinned down, the platoon leader (First Lt. Bill “Wild Bill” Dent) was killed and the platoon sergeant was wounded.
“Specialist Stephenson immediately took charge of the remaining elements of the platoon, provided a base of fire and kept the company commander informed of his situation. He directed the platoon to relieve pressure on the lead squad, allowing it to regroup with a minimum of casualties. He then coordinated with the company commander and another platoon leader who was maneuvering his element to the flank. He directed air strikes, aerial rocket artillery and helicopter gunships in conjunction with the operation.
“His spontaneous leadership, tenacity and calmness under fire served as an inspiration to his men and kept the platoon intact as a fighting unit…”
Stephenson said the platoon was part of a company-size force from LZ (Landing Zone) Salley. “We had three platoons. I was in the lead squad of the lead platoon.”
Stephenson himself was wounded. Ultimately, he and others were rescued by Army helicopter. In time, he recuperated and was honorably discharged with the rank of sergeant E5. He could look back with pride. In his brief time in uniform, he had been awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation Medal, the Combat Infantryman’s badge and the Air Medal and more.
Yet it was not over. Though he left the Army behind, the demons of war claimed squatter’s rights in his head and came home with him. He said for 40 years he had nightmares and became addicted to alcohol and drugs. He has been clean and sober four years.
“The demons came around five nights out of seven,” he said. “But not any more. You know why? Look at the sign right behind you.”
On a wall is a sign that declares in prominent type: “God can’t do what?”
“He got God in his life and turned it around,” Kellie said.
Stephenson has two sons — Eric, 36, of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Chad, 38, of Vero Beach, Fla. — by a previous marriage. Kellie has a son, Taylor Mangold, by a previous marriage. Stephenson and Kellie have a daughter, McKenna, 14, a student at Lake Road School.
On Wednesday, Eric was at the hospital to visit his father. He said until recently, his father never talked about what happened in Vietnam. “Then he told me that after 40 years, the nightmares had finally stopped,” he said. “Part of his moving on with his life was giving it to God and letting God take care of it. I’m very proud of him. He’s found peace with his past and peace with his present.”
A little known fact is that when Stephenson was rescued by “choppers,” he was found to have several bullet holes in his uniform. The bullets had passed through the clothing without touching his body.
On Thursday, Mrs. Stephenson gave The Messenger an update on her husband’s condition. She said he appears to be healing and doctors may take out the rest of the staples soon. During the day, she said, he’s tired because of physical therapy, but late nights “he’ll talk your ear off.”
As for that part of his skull that was surgically removed, it’ll be returned to its rightful place as soon as possible.
“It’s not in his stomach. It’s right underneath the skin,” she said. “They’ve got it connected to a blood supply. That way, when they put it back, it’ll still be viable.”
She said that he would survive and do as well as he has “is an absolute miracle.”
“A week ago Sunday, when the doctor called me out into the hallway, he said David had had a massive stroke and what happens with this type injury, the brain swells and the prognosis is not good,” she said. “My exact words were, ‘Do you mean death?’ He said yes. Nobody here really thought he had a good chance. It’s just remarkable. The doctors here have stayed right on top of his situation.”
She agrees he is indeed a “tough old bird.”
“We give God all the credit,” she said. “Even the neurosurgeon called David a miracle. David is a very spiritual person. He does a lot of witnessing to people. He’s very active in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous). He’s always given of his time. He transports people to AA and NA meetings.”
Will her husband ever regain full mobility? It remains to be seen. “We’ll just have to wait and see. He’ll go to a long-term rehab facility. We’re looking at Cane Creek now. They came yesterday and talked to us.”
While her husband is on the mend, she stays with him in the hospital room. “It’s tough, but this is where I need to be,” she said.
Editor’s note: The Messenger has a report, but has not been unable to confirm, that Stephenson was nominated by the 101st Airborne Division to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sunday evening, Mrs. Stephenson reported her husband has been moved from CCU to a regular room.
Published in The Messenger 5.17.10