Next month, Army veteran Allen B. Clark will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his “alive” date.
On June 17, 1967, Clark was serving as a combat medic in a Special Forces camp in Dak To, a base in the so-called “tri-border” area where South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos met. Before dawn the enemy started shelling the camp with mortars. Running with his rifle in one hand and a radio in the other, Clark felt a “sudden jolting thud” knock him forward. A mortar had exploded about 18 inches behind him, sending shrapnel into his body below the waist.
“Oh, God, my legs, my legs! Help me!” Clark screamed. “Oh, God, I’m dead!”
Clark, a Dallas resident, lived through the attack but lost both legs from the knees down. He struggled through rehabilitation but eventually learned to use prosthetic legs to walk. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or PTSD) took Clark much longer to conquer. Now he wants to take the lessons of his subsequent four decades to soldiers who have been wounded in Iraq.
Clark recently published a book called Wounded Soldier, Healing Warrior about his decades of physical and spiritual struggles and how his faith led to healing. He talked to Larry King for a taped show that will air on CNN at 8 p.m. this Saturday.
After his injuries, Clark eventually went to work, initially for H. Ross Perot, then as an assistant secretary in the Department of Veterans Affairs and as director of the National Cemetery System. He retired about 18 months ago as public affairs officer of the North Texas VA system.
At his retirement, Clark says, the Dallas VA hospital had received only two soldiers from the Iraq war that had severe spinal cord injuries -- or “poly-trauma” patients. Since his combat injuries 40 years ago, Clark has seen dramatic changes in the way such patients are treated.
The good news: “More soldiers are surviving now than in Vietnam,” Clark says. “The major reason is we have a hospital so far forward. The wounded are usually on roads. There are no jungles to give cover to the enemy to attack the choppers [doing evacuation], and the choppers have much more firepower. When I was wounded in the Special Forces camp, the enemy might be shooting down the choppers. In Vietnam, we had a 3 to 1 ration of wounded-to-killed. Now it’s about 9 to 1.”
Clark says that most soldiers who live through an explosion or sniper attack suffer wounds to parts of their body not covered by armor. “To my understanding, they have been fully equipped with body armor,” Clark says. But the injuries can be so severe the wounded lose one or multiple limbs.
“We had 1,080 multiple amputees from my war,” which lasted 10 years, says Clark. “Now we already 700 amputees who have lost limbs.”
After initial treatment, amputees are sent to the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio for rehabilitation, a $50-million “state of the world” facility near Brooke Army Medical Center that was dedicated two months ago with a performance by John Mellencamp.
“All new amputees are being treated there and getting updated [with] very high-tech arms and legs,” Clark says. “Mine have gotten better over four years. I use to develop sores on my legs and had to spend a lot of time in a wheelchair. I’m out a lot more now. But I have my name on the list to see if I can get some better legs.”
Injuries that can be seen may be getting better treatment than 40 years ago (at least at some VA centers). But Clark worries about the injuries not seen.
He believes many soldiers are returning to duty -- and ultimately home -- with undiagnosed and untreated TBIs, or traumatic brain injuries, caused by incendiary explosive devices (IEDs) or explosively framed projectiles (EFPs).
“As an example you are in a convoy, two vehicles back from an explosion,” Clark says. “There’s a tremendous force that hits you. And you don’t get a wound with blood, but your brain and your whole body gets a shock. It messes up your brain. Since there’s no blood, you go back to duty.”
About 1,600 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are currently being treated for TBI at VA hospitals. “The problem is that an untold number of people are suffering TBIs, but it is not being recognized,” Clark says.
And many are suffering another invisible wound: PTSD, which ravaged Clark for several decades after his combat wounds were healed.
“Only one out of three soldiers that get discharged are coming to the VA immediately because they need ongoing care,” says Clark. The other two-thirds released may not know they have TBI or PTSD, which can destroy a life saved on the battlefield.
“In the eighth month of my 15-month stay, I had my own emotional break,” Clark says. “I went in a closed psychiatric ward for 14 weeks. I had to be in psychotherapy for years. By on my faith walk, I’ve been able to get off anti-depressants and haven’t had to see a psychiatrist since then.”
Clark now works with other combat vets in a ministry to help those with PTSD; he describes the symptoms on his Web site.
“It’s sometimes manifested immediately after a combat action,” says Clark. “Sometimes it is delayed. It can just overwhelm you the rest of your life. If you are discharged there may be no one to talk to. I was with a guy the other day who had been put on one chopper and got moved to a different chopper. The first one was shot down, and all his friends died. He has survivor’s guilt. Combat medics often have survivor’s guilt because they cannot save everyone.”
Clark believes that the military in Iraq is doing a better job on recognizing and treating PTSD than in Vietnam. “They do have counseling going on closer to the front,” says Clark. "Family assistance groups are networking together so that if a unit is in an ambush and a casualty list is released, they get to each other quickly.”
Clark is lobbying for a smoother transition from active duty to the VA treatment and compensation system, which now can leave soldiers dangling without adequate financial or medical support, and required debriefing to help family members understand that PTSD can be delayed or chronic.
As someone who paid a high price for serving his country, Clark has opinions about the current war.
“I’m in support of the reason we went in,” says Clark. “I personally believe if Saddam had not been overthrown, it was just a question of time that he would develop nuclear weapons. But I think we made some massive errors, tactically and strategically. We were vastly undermanned when we went in. Do we have a strategic national security purpose to be served by staying there? Yes. But you can’t have a military solution anymore. You can only have security, to provide stabilization so they can work out their government. But if we pull out right now we will have genocide on the level of Rwanda.”
Clark hopes civilians understand the sacrifices American soldiers are making in Iraq. He says the negative reactions he received as a soldier and double-amputee after Vietnam amplified his PTSD. “At least this time around," Clark says, "even if people are against the war, they are being very supportive of the troops." --Glenna Whitley
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