Mysteries and miracles
Q: Success stories don't get any better than the recent rescue of 33 miners in Chile who were trapped for 68 days. One miner said he now saw the world in a whole new way. Do you think that feeling will last? Have you ever had an experience, small or large, that changed the way you think about life? If so, how has your life changed since, and are you glad for it?
(From the "Blues Brothers")
John Belushi : "... Me and the Lord, we have an understanding ...''
Dan Aykroyd: "We are on a mission, from God ..."
I am no Dan Akroyd ... but I do have a story to tell.
My first life-changing experience happened when I was barely 19 years old. I was in Vietnam, in the middle of a battle, with two hand grenades and 180 rounds of ammunition for my M-16. Explosions were very, very close. Bullets were flying through the air as I looked for the enemy. But they found me first.
My helmet flew off. My shoulder felt on fire. My right arm seemed paralyzed. I reloaded my weapon and fired off a few bullets. But that was it. I could not fight any more. Blood was streaming from my shoulder and lower back. I knew I was dying.
I remember feeling cheated, dying so young in a Vietnam jungle performing a minor role in a not very impressive battle. I said the Lord's Prayer and very angrily resigned myself to an early demise. Minutes later, I heard U.S. soldiers calling my name. This was the most dramatic day of my then rather brief life.
Years later, my experiences as a soldier in Vietnam prompted me to lead the fight to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
My second life-changing experience happened earlier this year. Just before my 60th birthday, I was in Richmond, Va., visiting John V. Cogbill III, a supporter of the Education Center at the Wall .
I did not feel well the whole time, especially while driving home to Annapolis. I don't remember much of that trip. I recall stopping around noon at a gas station to sleep and told my wife when she called around 2 p.m. to "leave me alone." And that's all I remember. That's when I became a missing person.
Calls flew between my worried wife, my office and John Cogbill, who got Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell. He got the the State Police of Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina looking for me.
Where was I?
I made it to the Washington Beltway, where I drove around until I ran out of fuel. The Maryland State Police vectored in on my cell phone and found me unconscious in my vehicle at 8 p.m. I woke up in the hospital hours later, with no recollection of anything after the 2 p.m. call to my spouse.
What happened is that a mechanical heart valve I received in 2008 had become filled with bacteria, which caused a high fever, putting me in my disoriented state. Somehow, thankfully, I was still able to drive at high speeds and not hurt myself or anyone else.
Doctors studied my condition and recommended that I have the heart valve replaced ASAP. The surgery was risky, though: If removing the old valve freed more bacteria, it would wreak havoc on my heath, even to the point of causing my death. I was not as worried as others, though. As in 1969, my point of view was simple: if God wanted me dead, He had His chance. I would be fine.
In the end, I survived a tough surgery and several frightening days in intensive care with a mechanical ventilator doing my breathing. This happened in March. I was back to work in May. Now, I exercise, ride my bike, golf, shoot skeet and practice a healthy lifestyle.
"Look at it this way: you were given a brand new life," noted one doctor.
How and why did I survive all of this drama? Maybe it was just a random; statistically improbable event of no real consequence to anyone except me. And maybe the same was true in Vietnam.
Or maybe there was more to it. I think we are all on earth to achieve things great and small for reasons that are far bigger than ourselves. There are mysteries in life and death that are, like religious faith, rather speculative and not provable. To me, and most people, there is a higher power who just may intervene from time to time.
Why did I survive? I can only speculate. Two near-death experiences had their impact and changed the way I look at life. Fate has given me an interesting and challenging life. There is a mission ahead. Maybe you are interested in learning about it.