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One Step at a Time

by Robert Stuart

Paul had been a member of Force Reconnaissance, a highly trained, elite unit within the Marine Corps.  His numerous wounds were the result of a firefight while on a mission to recover classified material from a drone that had crashed in an area controlled by the Viet Cong.  After recovering the material and blowing up the drone wreckage, he and the other five members of his team moved to a rendezvous point for extraction.

All went smoothly as the first four team members were hoisted, one at a time through the treetops into a helicopter, until Paul’s turn.  He was almost in the chopper when heavy small-arms fire erupted from nearby brush and trees.  The pilot immediately took evasive action, flying just above the trees, zigzagging at high speed.  Paul dangled a few feet below, battered by the treetops as the crew and his four teammates struggled to haul him in.  Just as they managed to get Paul in, the chopper banked, turning back for the sixth and last man.  Paul fell out, and crashed through the tree limbs to the jungle floor, more than eighty feet below.

Paul couldn’t remember if he had taken the hoisting harness off or if it had been damaged while he was beating through the treetops.  He had only vague recollections of what followed.  The rest of the story was pieced together through letters from his teammates and by the nature of his wounds and injuries.

When Paul hit the ground, he shattered both legs, but he managed to hang on to his automatic rifle through the fall and the impact with the ground.  In the ensuing firefight the sixth marine and Paul—with both his legs broken and several wounds—beat back the attackers and were extracted by the chopper.

When I first met Paul, he had already been in the hospital for several months, maybe a year.  The medical staff had transferred me to his ward (76B) because the stump that was left of my right hand was infected, and all infected orthopedic patients went to 76B.  Paul’s bed was near the nurse’s station, and being a new guy, I was assigned the bed across the aisle from him.

One of his legs was in traction, the other in a cast from hip to ankle.  Both legs had been shattered by the eighty-foot fall from the helicopter.  His right arm was in a cast from shoulder to wrist, bent at the elbow—treatment for shrapnel wounds.  On the left side of his head was a recent scar that started above his temple, ran down the side of his face and curved back to his ear—a remanent of the surgeries to remove a section of his skull damaged by bamboo splinters.  Later when the swelling subsided, doctors would insert a metal plate.  His only undamaged limb was his left arm.

Doctors had told Paul he would probably never walk again.  Most likely, he would be confined to an electric wheelchair because of his crippled right arm.

In the middle of the third night, I was awakened by Paul grunting and groaning as if he was in excruciating pain.  In a muffled voice, which I hoped only he would hear, I asked, “Paul, you okay?  You need help?”

“I’m all right.  Don’t worry,” he answered, but the sounds continued.

“Are you sure, Paul?”

“Yeah, leave me alone!” Again, the groaning began.

I was worried.  Paul might be in more pain than he could handle and was too proud to admit it.  I hollered for the nurse, and she ran from the station toward my bed.  “Check Paul.  Something’s wrong.”

She swerved toward Paul’s bed and they talked briefly in whispers.  The nurse started back to her station, pausing by my bed, “Paul’s okay.  Don’t bother him.”

In the morning, Paul waved me over and explained that his animal sounds were the product of exertion.  He’d been doing dynamic tension exercises to strengthen his legs.  The procedure is to flex a muscle group as intensely as possible and hold that flexion for twelve to fifteen seconds, relax and repeat three or four times.  For his undamaged left arm, he did one-handed pull-ups from the lying position raising his upper body to a small trapeze that hung from a framework over his bed.

When Paul’s legs had healed well enough to be out of traction and the cast, he switched to isometric exercise.  Instead of just contracting his leg muscles, he pushed against the metal frame at the foot of his bed with his feet using the same sequence as with dynamic tension: push, relax, and repeat.  He held the sides of the bed frame with his hands—using his right as best he could—to keep from pushing his body toward the head.  He repeated the routine several times a day, keeping the grunting and groaning to a minimum if people were within earshot.

The day came when Paul managed to sit up, turn his body to the side of the bed, and lower his feet to the floor.  Each day he gradually put more weight on his feet until a week later he stood by his bedside.  Standing upright, he looked around the ward, a smile of accomplishment on his face, enjoying the watershed moment, but for Paul it was only the first step along his journey.

“How’s it going Paul?”

“One step at a time, Bob.  Just one step at a time.”

That exchange became a regular routine.  Every day as Paul struggled to his feet one of us would ask the same question, and his reply became his mantra, “One step at a time.”

Soon, Paul started taking steps along the side of his bed, hunched over, and clutching the bed for support.  First, it was only one step, then sit on the bed.  As the days went on, he progressed to two then three steps, until he could make it to the foot of his bed and back.  Another big day came when he was able to walk around the foot of the bed and sit down on the other side.

The hospital had issued Paul a wheelchair, and he developed a unique method of propelling it.  Because he could only use his left arm, he pushed the chair in a constant curve to the right.  To overcome this, he learned to balance the left-hand wheel spin with a left-hand wheel drag that turned the chair back on course.  At first, he did a lot of zigzagging down the ward leaving black skid marks on the floor.  He gradually refined the technique until he was able to speed along in an almost straight line leaving nearly no skid marks.  Paul soon found another use for the wheelchair.  He began using it as a walker.

I never saw a walker at the naval hospital.  I don’t know if they weren’t developed yet or if the Navy had some regulation against their use.  Paul would push the chair down the ward until he got tired.  At first, he could only walk the chair fifteen feet; sit down and rest, then push the chair back to his bed.  Gradually, he lengthened his arduous journey until he could walk the length of the ward.  The day had come for the next phase: walking without using the wheelchair.  He walked the chair halfway down the ward, sat in it for a short rest, then lifted himself out with his arms and began walking toward his bed, leaving the chair in the middle of the ward.  Each step was a meticulous effort: left foot … step; right foot … step; and pause for a short rest.  The ward became silent. All activity stopped.  We tried not to stare as we sneaked glances at his progress.  His pauses became longer and someone asked, “Are you okay, Paul?”

“I’m okay,” he answered, “I just have to take one step at a time.”

A brief rest and he resumed his walk.

Paul made it to his bed and lay down.  One of the patients walked to the chair and started to push it back to Paul’s bed.  “Put it back,” Paul said, “I’ll get it when I’m ready.”

As Paul rested, the empty wheelchair stood alone in the middle of the amputee ward.  The afternoon sun slanted through the windows brightening the dark-tiled floor and sparkled on the chrome handles of the chair.  I have seen the statue in Washington, D.C. of marines raising the American Flag on Iwo Jima, and as I gazed at that symbol of uncommon valor, the image of that empty wheelchair swelled from the depths of my soul.

After an hour, Paul dragged himself out of bed and with the same methodic shuffle, walked back to the wheelchair, and sat down, resting.  Someone asked Paul if he wanted a push back to his bed.

“Nah,” he replied, “I just have to take one step at a time.”

After several minutes Paul struggled out of the chair and began the journey back to his bed … pushing the wheelchair.  We all stared mesmerized as we anticipated his every step.  Each step was a triumph for Paul and an inspiration for all of us.  He made it to his bed and flopped down with a smile, but a mask of determination quickly covered the smile.  He was already preparing mentally for the next day’s effort when he would lengthen his walk one more step.

Paul’s recovery had setbacks.  Another surgery was needed to correct a condition in his leg that inhibited healing (I never learned the details) and for a short time he was back to a full cast on one leg.

A month later, Paul developed kidney stones and was sent to another ward.  While he was gone, I was transferred to the nearby naval base on Treasure Island to await my release from the Corps.  On my last visit to the hospital before going home, I stopped in at 76B.  It was early morning and Paul wasn’t there, although I knew he had been moved back.  I was worried, but the patients assured me that Paul was okay, and he would be back shortly from his morning run.  In a few minutes, Paul arrived wearing sweat clothes and gym shoes, his face glistening with perspiration.

“Paul, you were running?  How far did you go?”

“Just a mile or so,” Paul replied, “It’ll get farther.  You know how it is Bob, one step at a time.”

In the wards of a military hospital, there are no bands playing sterling martial music. There are no parades, no floating confetti, and no cheering crowds.  Many Vietnam veterans are resentful that they didn’t get the welcome home they think they deserved—ticker-tape parades or dancing in the streets.  But, greater is their misfortune.  They never saw that empty wheelchair in the middle of ward 76B, or Paul Tellis standing in his sweat-soaked shirt saying, “Just one step at a time.”

Bob Stuart served with Charlie Company, First Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment (C/1/9) in Vietnam. He was shot through both hands and spent three and a half months in the Oakland Naval hospital. He has been working on his memoir since his retirement five years ago.

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