Blinded by war; rescued by faith
By KYLE PERROTTI | The Mountaineer, Waynesville, N.C. | Published: October 13, 2018
Despite everything he will never see, Bill Conard lives in the light.
Conard, now 72, lost his sight in Vietnam, and although he was initially overwhelmed by his disability, after accepting his new circumstance and eventually accepting Christ, he has grown to thrive.
Getting to Vietnam
Conard went to Clyde High School but never made it past ninth grade. For the next few years, he worked a number of jobs in Western North Carolina, many of which involved their fair share of manual labor.
"We had to work," he said. "I had a large family and there wasn't no playing around."
Conard volunteered for the Army when he was 20, and on Jan. 3, 1966, he enlisted with his heart set on eventually getting out with retirement pay, buying a tractor trailer, and hitting the road. His wanted to move west.
After finishing basic training at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina, Conard hit the low country in Ft. Polk, Louisiana, for jungle warfare training, which he said was diverse and difficult.
"You had to learn what to do if you got captured and have to survive on your own," he said.
In July 1966 as just a private first class, Conard went to Vietnam, arriving first in Saigon before shipping over to Bien Hoa.
He was assigned to the First Infantry Division, more affectionately known as "The Big Red One" or "The Bloody First," as a machine gunner, meaning instead of carrying the standard M-16 rifle, he carried an M60, which can devour a 100-round belt of ammunition in a matter of seconds. The gun itself weighs over 20 pounds, but Conard said he never minded hauling it around.
"I never did pay no attention to it," he said.
While out on search and destroy missions, Conard and crew would spend up to 30 days in the bush. He recalled that he had to use his M60 five times in combat, all against the Viet Cong, but the first time he witnessed the ugliness of war was when a sniper zeroed in on his platoon.
"This boy just hit the ground," he said, adding that he had a stark realization that day.
"There was some pretty territory I seen over there, but after I got over there, I wish I hadn't volunteered," he said.
"I didn't know what war was like," he said. "It wasn't like this cowboys and Indians stuff on the television. It was a different thing. It wasn't no comic book."
Eventually, he came to grips with the cruel reality of war and carried out his duties as a machine gunner.
"I thought it's either me or them, and I had to get over the fear," he said.
Conard said the terrain made things tougher than anything else. The ground was swampy and wet, the undergrowth thick.
"It was hard to see the enemy, but the enemy could see you," he said. "I hated it because when they fired on you, you don't know where it's coming from, and those little buggers were smart."
To make matters tougher for Conard, he was frequently in the enemy's crosshairs.
"Your enemy tries to knock out the machine gunner first," he said. "They always tried to get your most powerful gun out first. Down in Louisiana, I think they said it was about 70 to 80 seconds is how long a machine gunner lasts normally."
After a few long missions and a few firefights of varying in intensity, Conard lived a day that would inalterably change the course of his life.
Into the darkness
"The morning of November first, nineteen-hundred and sixty-six, we had to go out six miles and come back on a search and destroy mission," he said. "That's when we walked inside a VC basecamp. We didn't know it was in there. It was just like walking into the trees and everything and heavy brush and bushes and things."
A vicious firefight ensued. As rounds kicked up dirt and smacked against trees all around Conard, he unloaded ammo belts as fast as he could.
"I shot over 150 rounds, and my gun got hot so it was firing on its own," he said. "It got jammed up, and I had to change the barrel right fast and keep going."
But when Conard saw a few soldiers go down near him, he abandoned his weapon to tend to the wounded men. That's when the 32-pound artillery shells began to rain down. As he was exposed, the explosions went off around him.
"I heard the first one go off, and I heard the second one go off, and the third one got me," he said. "I was doing medical for a Stinnett feller, and I started to jump back to my machine gun, and that's when the third came in, and I can't tell you no more because I was out of it."
To his knowledge, one of the men he was giving first aid to passed away, but the others survived. For his actions that day, he was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with a "V" for valor.
Conard said he likely would have died were it not for his two good friends, Richard Duncan and James Snyder, who carried him to safety. Eventually a medivac chopper was able to get him out of there.
"They'd lay down their life for me, and if I wouldn't have gotten hurt, I would have laid my life down for them," Conard said. "That's what you take the oath for when you go into the military."
While all who fought in Vietnam recall their friends from the war fondly, many eventually lose contact, leaving only memories. But Conard, Snyder, and Duncan still keep in contact, and Conard said they even came to his family reunion in 1984.
"They're like brothers to me," he said.
The men are so close, they even honored a pact they once made deep in the jungles of Indochina.
"We was just shootin' the breeze in the jungle," he said. "We was talking, and I said , "ll tell you what boys ... when we get married, we'll name our first boys after one another."
And that's exactly what they did.
A long recovery
When Conard woke up three weeks later, he was in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. The first thing he said he noticed was that he had numerous bandages around his face. Then he realized he couldn't see a thing.
"I asked them how come I couldn't see, and a major, he just said, 'you're blind,'" Conard recalled. "Well, that put me back into shock for three more days. Then when I got where I could talk and understand things again, I was just trying to figure out my injuries."
Conard said that for a long time, he was in an "igloo bed," which ensures nothing below the neck is exposed. Along with being blinded, he had a hole in his chest, a large gash and a fracture on his left leg, a mangled left hand, and an almost entire severed right arm that hasn't been functional since.
"They just about tore this here arm off," he said, tapping his right arm with one of the working fingers on his left hand.
Conard spent the next five months in the hospital recovering before he was medically retired from the Army. Next up, he went to the VA hospital in Chicago, where he learned how to cope with life as a blind man.
"I'll just be honest with you, I didn't care whether I lived or died then," he said with a sigh.
It wasn't until he spoke with a counsellor at the VA hospital that he gained a new perspective.
"He explained to me," Conard said. "He said, 'you're in prison.' I said, 'what do you mean?' He said, 'when you could see, you wasn't in prison, but now that you're blind, you got into this prison.' He meant I had to accept that I was this new person. He gave me a light."
After a brief stay in Chicago, he returned home to Western North Carolina.
Moving forward through faith
Aside from the day he was hit, there seems to be one other day that will always live on in Conard's mind. Jan. 14, 1972.
"That was the day I gave my life over to the Lord," he said.
"I'd put God in the closet, and I was living in sin," he added. "But that was all washed away, and because I called on him, I knew I had to change my way of living. If not, I'd be in a worse place than Vietnam."
There are four Bible verses that have inspired Conard throughout his life: John 3:16, John 14:1, Acts 16:31 and James 4:14 – all verses he can rattle off from memory.
Through finding God, Conard found himself, and he began to flourish. Along the way, he has been heavily involved in the Waynesville VFW, Hazelwood Lions Club, Blind Veterans Association and Disabled American Veterans, which, one year, named him the outstanding disabled veteran for North Carolina.
Conard is also a devoted member of the Emmanuel Baptist Church in Clyde, where he enjoys singing in the choir. Although he claims he doesn't have much of a voice, he loves singing anywhere and everywhere to anyone and everyone.
"Well, I try to sing," he said humbly.
After a brief first marriage gave Conard two children, he married his second wife, Bertha, in 1970, with whom he had two more kids. He stayed with Bertha until she passed away 11 years ago. When asked if being blind made falling in love difficult, he responded with a quick and confident "no."
While all these things have been important to Conard as he's lived his life, perhaps the thing he enjoys most is swapping antiques. Nary a person walks through his door without having the opportunity to buy, sell, or trade something. While it may seem odd that a blind man so enjoys dealing in goods that can best be analyzed through sight, it doesn't bother him one bit.
"I can still remember what things look like," he said. "I remember what, say, a wheelbarrow or a table looks like. I saw for 20 years before I was blind for 52."
Although life has been a struggle at times for Conard, he has carried on confidently and joyously, despite all the things he'll never see. And that is the definition of faith.
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