Twist of fate reunites two vets forever changed by Vietnam War

03/22/2012 12:00 AM

05/29/2012 7:12 PM

Greg Welch knew as soon as he heard the voice.

He'd been expecting a new roommate at Carmichael Care and Rehabilitation Center, where he has lived the past two years – ever since his Parkinson's disease, a result of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam, progressed to the point that his wife couldn't care for him in their Rancho Cordova home.

His voice is faint and weak now, his short-term memory unreliable because of the powerful medications he takes, as well as the slowly encroaching dementia related to his illness. At 66, he is a retired surgical technician who long ago served as a Navy corpsman, or medic.

Welch watched as the door pushed open. A double amputee backed his wheelchair into the room and introduced himself.

"Hi, I'm Mike Carey," he said.

In an instant, memories of a young, desperately wounded Marine – memories of another life in another era – flooded back through the years.

"I know you," Welch replied.

In the lifetime between then and now, they became old men, mostly because Vietnam aged them quickly and in ways most people don't endure.

Besides his Parkinson's disease, Welch has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes, which the Veterans Administration includes on its list of Agent Orange-related coverage.

Now 65, Carey has diabetes, too, along with hepatitis C from blood transfusions after he was injured. He also has osteoporosis, and he has battled alcohol problems.

"No 20-year-old should go through the experiences they had," said Susan Carey, 59, Mike's wife. "I look at Greg and Mike, and I think, 'It just never goes away.' With Greg and his illness. And with Mike. From that point on, such a trauma changed him forever."

The war, as Mike Carey put it, left both of them maimed. The only difference is, some wounds are visible for the world to see, while some are deeply hidden.

A faraway rice paddy

Sunrise on March 27, 1967, was the start of a clear, warm day in the countryside outside Da Nang, a day that Mike Carey remembers in vivid detail.

At 20, he was a Sacramento kid, the son of a retired Air Force veteran. He had graduated from Bishop Armstrong High School in 1964 and enrolled at Sacramento State. But he was working as a janitor at night and playing intramural baseball during the day, and ended up mostly sleeping in class.

In February 1966, Carey signed up with the Marines. By Thanksgiving, he was in Vietnam.

That March sunrise, he was walking point, leading his platoon on a trail that cut through rice paddies and a cemetery up to a tree line. He took a step and heard a click.

The world exploded.

Suddenly, he couldn't see out of his right eye. He tried to grope for his rifle, but his right arm wasn't working. Maybe it was broken, he thought. He looked down and realized that his right foot was attached only by a tendon. He watched as a corpsman snipped away his foot and stanched the bleeding.

Stabilized in a Navy mobile hospital, he was airlifted to Travis Air Force Base for transfer to Naval Hospital Oakland. He waited on the tarmac, lying on his gurney and gazing up at the wide California sky, while troops unloaded other wounded servicemen.

"That's OK," he remembers thinking. "Leave me here as long as you want. I'm home."

At the hospital, also known as Oak Knoll, a 21-year-old corpsman was called in from his quarters to assist in the trauma unit.

He looked down at the gurney, at the battered Marine who'd lost his right eye, right arm and right leg to a land mine in a faraway rice paddy.

And Greg Welch started wiping the blood and mud of Vietnam off of Mike Carey.

A simpler time

In the innocent time that came before Vietnam, Welch was an Air Force kid who saw life through his father's postings around the world. By the late 1950s, the family was living outside Wichita Falls, Texas.

"We would hang out together," said a high school friend, Carl Ramirez, 66, who reconnected with Welch in Sacramento a decade ago. "We were interested in cars and girls. We were both very shy. One of our friends had a Plymouth, and we'd all go to the drive-in and get four hamburgers for 25 cents."

After his father was assigned to Mather Air Force Base, Welch graduated from Folsom High School in 1963, then attended American River College. Sacramento was still a military town, a civil service town – a small town with modest ambitions, neat lawns and clean-cut values. And Vietnam was still a remote place somewhere around the globe.

Welch enlisted in the Navy in 1966, one step ahead of the draft, because his father suggested it would help him avoid infantry combat. As a corpsman, he served a year at Oak Knoll before shipping out to Vietnam.

He specialized in the care of amputees, grievously injured young men who tended to have problems with anger and depression, reliving the moments that took their arms and legs as well as the futures they had planned for themselves.

"They always asked for more pain medication," Welch said, sitting in his wheelchair at the Carmichael care facility. He spoke slowly, in his hushed voice, struggling to put the words together. "Michael had a high tolerance for pain. He never complained. I remember that. He had some special qualities."

Bullet holes and arms

Carey doesn't clearly remember meeting Welch that first night in the Oak Knoll trauma unit. "There's a memory lurking somewhere in my mind," he said.

What he remembers in detail is long days on the amputee ward, getting fitted for arm and leg prostheses and learning to use them. He remembers his family, shocked by the extent of his injuries but trying hard to do their best for him, struggling to adjust to what Carey calls "the new me."

On weekends, Welch liked to drive home to Rancho Cordova to see his family. When he learned that Carey was from Sacramento, Welch frequently brought him home, too.

"I really didn't get to know Greg well then," Carey said. "I probably laughed at his jokes."

He was discharged from both the hospital and the Marine Corps in fall 1967, just about the time Welch left for his year's tour in Vietnam.

Welch spent most of 1968 assigned to An Hoa Combat Base and an assortment of grim places the Marines referred to by nickname: Arizona Valley, which wasn't really a valley; Dodge City, which really wasn't a city; and Go Noi Island, which really wasn't an island.

As senior corpsman, Welch went out on patrol with his platoon, patching up Marines when he could, collecting their bodies when mortars tore them to pieces.

"It's just a mess of flesh," Ramirez, a fellow Vietnam veteran, said.

After one firefight that took the lives of nine Marines, Welch was mistakenly reported killed in action. During another attack, he struggled to put on his flak jacket and later found a piece of shrapnel lodged over his chest.

"I remember a letter from him," said another former naval corpsman from Sacramento, Dennis Kauffman Sr., 64. "He'd lost one of his buddies the night before on patrol, and he was saying, 'Have you ever had to evaluate somebody's wounds in the pitch black, and you find nothing but bullet holes and pieces of arms and legs?' "

It troubles Welch now to discuss what he saw. He gets lost in the memories, searching for words, and the stress of remembering makes his Parkinson's-related tremors worse.

"It's kind of hard," he finally said. "I try not to think about it."

Searching for meaning

After the war, Carey went back home to live with his parents and returned to Sacramento State to study Spanish. One day a pretty girl in a print dress asked him how he'd lost his arm and leg.

"I said I'd been in Vietnam, and she spit in my face and called me a baby killer," he said. "She was a little misguided."

When one of his professors suggested he study in Spain, Carey left the country for several years. He returned and continued his studies, receiving his master's degree in Spanish in 1980 and marrying a young schoolteacher in 1981. They had two children, now grown, and he worked as a wine buyer for Corti Brothers and a Spanish teacher at Loretto High School.

At home in River Park, he collected a library full of books on the war that changed his life.

"He was trying to understand how we got to Vietnam and what the point was," said his wife, Susan. "He's never been reluctant to talk about it."

A decade ago, Carey underwent interferon therapy for his hepatitis C. The treatment was unsuccessful and left him so weak he couldn't continue teaching. His alcohol problems grew over the years that followed, he and his wife say, and so did his health problems.

After rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder in May 2010, he spent months rehabbing at Veterans Affairs' extended care center in Martinez before moving to Carmichael Care and Rehabilitation early last year.

Bottled up memories

When Welch came home to Sacramento late in 1969, he tried hard to put the war behind him. He went to ARC again, and he partied a lot.

"I'd do things with people from high school," he said. "My life had changed over there, and I wasn't aware of it yet."

He worked as a surgical technician in the Sutter medical system for two decades, then sold medical supplies. After a brief marriage in the early 1970s, he met a young divorcée with two children and married her in 1979.

"He was a lovely man," said Frankie Welch, 64. "He was quiet and laid back. We've had an awesome marriage."

They raised her children and a grandchild, then adopted two foster children, girls now 5 and 10, who they looked forward to raising when Welch retired.

They also planned to buy a motor home and travel across the country. Instead, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The tremors gradually became severe, and Welch fell again and again at home, unable to steady himself and too heavy for Frankie to tend.

As his disease worsened, his memories of Vietnam began to haunt him.

"If I could redo it now, I would have hooked him up with a therapist a long time ago to see what was bottled up in him from Vietnam," said Frankie. "I can't even comprehend the stuff that they endured. Only another person who went through it would know."

At Ramirez's urging, Welch in early 2007 submitted a taped interview to the Veterans History Project, which is handled through the county's Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

He told volunteer Jesse Diaz some of what he saw, a few details. And he talked about the Marine he'd never forgotten, the young Sacramento man who'd lost his leg and arm but never complained.

A source of comfort

The night that Carey wheeled into the small room they would share, Welch called his wife at home, so overcome with emotion that he could hardly speak.

"I'm taking care of him again," said Welch.

"And I have a sense of being able to help Greg out now," said Carey.

The plan was for Carey to continue recuperating, then return home. But he suffered setback after setback, and an illness left him close to death at the end of 2011.

"I had to keep him alive again," said Welch. "I was told he was in hospice care, and then I was told they were going to take him off the ventilator. I was devastated. I just kept talking to him and talking to him."

After treatment at a local hospital, Carey rallied.

His wife would like him placed back at the Martinez VA for intense physical therapy, she said, but he doesn't want to leave Welch.

The common ground the two of them share, once so traumatic, has become a source of comfort. In their room, settled in hospital beds separated only by a privacy curtain, they talk on and on about the lives they led long ago as young men willing to sacrifice for their country.

They left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left them.

"When I look back," said Carey, "Vietnam isn't past tense. It's still here, and we're still living with it."


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