'This guy saved me': After 50 years, two Vietnam veterans reunite in Wisconsin
Winona Daily News July 11, 2022
(Tribune News Service) — Mike West recalls the February 2021 day when his wife, Lois, answered the door at their West Salem residence.
"My wife said, 'Some big guy is at the door and says you saved him in Vietnam,'" he said.
The big guy was Terry Shepardson.
For the next several hours, West and Shepardson relived their life-and-death experience together in Vietnam. The two renewed their friendship as Shepardson finally came to terms with a terrifying day in 1970 when an explosion burned 40% of his body.
The injuries left Shepardson physically and mentally scarred. They also, until recently, left him unable to express gratitude to West, a fellow La Crosse Central High School student, who recognized Shepardson as he lay injured and was one of the first to treat him for his wounds.
Shepardson's story began in La Crosse, where he decided in seventh grade that he wanted to become a Marine. His ambition never wavered, even as images of dead and wounded soldiers in Vietnam were being broadcast back home. He admired the Marines for their "spit shine" and "toughness."
"I always wanted to join the Marine Corps," Shepardson said. "The training was hard. At that time, it was the toughest in the service."
By the time he was old enough to sign up, his mother had remarried, and the new family moved to a farm near Taylor. He graduated from Taylor High School in 1969.
"I was 17 when I joined," Shepardson said. "I just had my mother sign the papers."
Over the next six months, he trained in California and got married before landing in Vietnam in January 1970. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines Headquarters and Supply Company and was greeted by 93-degree weather and the unpredictable day-to-day cycle of tropical combat. His unit was roughly 25 miles from Da Nang and overlooked a "free fire zone."
"If there was any movement, you shot at it," he said. "I fired shots at least three times a night."
West, meanwhile, graduated from Central in 1967. He joined his father's painting business after high school while signing up for the Navy Reserves.
"They had a program where you join the Navy Reserves but sometime you had to go on active duty for two years," he said.
That time came in June 1969. He trained in Guam and volunteered for Vietnam duty as part of a medical evacuation unit. He arrived in Da Nang in January 1970 and was assigned to a hospital ship named Sanctuary.
West quickly came face-to-face with the horrors of military combat.
"We'd see amputees, dead people and everything," he said. "They came 24/7."
It wouldn't be long before the two former classmates would cross paths halfway around the world from Central High School.
Shepardson will never forget May 20, 1970. He was among 10 soldiers gathered in a bunker for a meeting to report the previous day's patrol activity. The bunker contained food, ammunition, cleaning fluid and, ominously, gasoline that was used to clean weapons.
Around 4 p.m., Shepardson heard a "click" in the air. That was followed by an explosion and a fire. To this day, Shepardson doesn't know what caused the explosion.
"I turned my head, and all of a sudden the God dang place just blew — blew right up." he said. "The next thing I knew, I was burning, flying in the air, and I landed 25 to 30 yards from the bunker. I was burning, on fire."
Shepardson had sustained second- and third-degree burns to 40% of his body. His pain was compounded by a well-meaning gunner who threw a blanket on top of him. The blanket stuck to his thighs.
"There were four or five of us hurt real bad," he said. "You can't imagine the smell of four or five guys who had been burned like that."
Shepardson was loaded onto a helicopter headed for the medical ship, where he was startled to see a familiar face delivering emergency medical attention.
"I said, 'Mike, you son of a bitch,' and here he was, Mike, two feet away taking care of me — putting the IV in, cleaning off my wounds, checking my temperature and my blood pressure and making sure I was breathing alright," Shepardson said. "He said 'Terry, Terry,' and that's the last I heard of him for three days … I passed out with the morphine shot."
West recognized his Central classmate instantly and made sure Shepardson was included in his daily rounds.
"When we came in with the helicopter, I told them there's a guy from my hometown and I would like to take care of him," West said.
Shepardson said his classmate followed through. He remembers West putting him in the shower and performing the delicate and painstaking task of changing bandages on burned skin.
"Mike was taking care of me," Shepardson said. "I know he had his other people, but I was one of his old boys from La Crosse."
Shepardson remained on the ship for 10 days before he and his severely wounded comrades were flown to Tokyo. Not all of them survived. Five days after arriving in Japan, Shepardson's friend, Steve Lowe, died from his injuries. Shepardson was lying in bed next to Lowe when he "flat-lined."
"I looked over, and they were beating his chest," he said. "He was gone, and we all knew it."
From Tokyo, Shepardson flew to San Diego and then to the Veterans Administration hospital at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where he was a patient for six months.
He recalled a June day at the facility when a famous man wearing a cowboy hat walked into his room.
"I almost passed out," he said. "I laid at attention. It was LBJ." The letters stood for Lyndon Baines Johnson, the former president of the United States.
"He invited us to have dinner the next day because he knew they took us out on weekends to go around the area and get us out of the hospital," Shepardson said. "It was Texas, and what LBJ wanted, LBJ got."
Johnson invited the soldiers to his ranch and later to his birthplace, which opened to the public with significant fanfare that week.
"Lady Bird Johnson (his wife) was with him on the bus, and he said in a Southern drawl, 'I'm going to go out and cook some steaks, and I'm just wondering how many of you guys want some steak," Shepardson said. "Of course, all the hands go up, and everybody is hooting and hollering."
He said Johnson disappeared for the next couple of hours while Lady Bird stayed with the veterans and personally served them lemonade. There was also a case of Lone Star beer on a nearby table that didn't last long.
From there, they went to Johnson's birthplace, where thousands of people showed up for the opening. Shepardson said he and his fellow soldiers were given preference.
"(Johnson) opened the door and said, 'You guys are coming in first,'" Shepardson said.
Johnson gave every soldier a book he authored after leaving the White House. He signed each one in their presence.
"He had books for sale, but he gave them to us," he said. "My friend got the first one, and I got the second one."
Shepardson was honorably discharged from the Marines in April 1971 and underwent more surgery at a VA hospital in Milwaukee before returning home, where he learned his first child was on the way.
However, his return home wasn't happy. He suffered from alcohol abuse and churned through multiple jobs before his wife sought a divorce.
"My life was a mess for the next 15 years," he said. "It was a rough time emotionally and physically. Things weren't right."
Shepardson quit drinking in 1987. He said that decision turned his life around and led to steady employment at Fort McCoy until 2002, when he moved to Michigan after his job was transferred there.
He married his second wife, Toniann, and the two lived in New York and South Carolina until she died earlier this year. He moved back to La Crosse shortly after her death.
As Shepardson was putting his life back together, the one thing he couldn't do was relive the events of May 1970. For five decades, he shunned a reunion with West.
West wouldn't have been hard to find. He received his discharge from the military in January 1971, returned to Wisconsin and married Lois in 1978. He attended UW-La Crosse for 2 1/2 years and returned to commercial painting with steady assignments at Fort McCoy.
At his 10-year class reunion, one of West's friends convinced him to work for his insurance firm. West eventually took over the business and ran M. West & Associates until he retired in 2010. Like Shepardson, he is 100% disabled based on his military service, has PTSD and endured multiple health challenges since he retired.
After his discharge, West said he tried to contact Shepardson at least a half dozen times with no success. He actually saw Shepardson in 1976 but wasn't able to approach him.
"I saw him at a softball tournament, and I went up and said, 'Hey, Terry,' but he just walked away," West said. "He wasn't ready yet, I guess."
Shepardson was finally ready in 2021.
"After 50 years, I finally said I could face it," he said. "Emotionally, it was still pretty hard, but this guy saved me, and I wanted to make sure that I saw him and communicated with him."
On the day of the reunion, Shepardson stopped at the Brenengan Kia dealership in West Salem for an oil change. He approached another customer and asked if he knew West. Not only did the customer know West, he had purchased insurance from him. The customer then pulled out a business card and drew a map to West's residence (Shepardson still has the card).
Shepardson went straight to the West residence without calling ahead, which only added to the intense emotion of the moment.
"I couldn't understand him for about an hour because he was crying so hard," West said. "We both cried for a long time."
Shepardson said the two have done a lot of catching up.
"Since that time, we're still trying to go through old times — some hard times and some bad times," he said. "I'm 100% disabled, and so is Mike, so we're both watching out for each other now."
Shepardson said seeking out West "was the best thing I ever did." He looks forward to having his entire family meet West sometime soon.
"I want my kids to know everything that happened," he said. "They know he saved me, but they don't know much about his life. It will be a happy occasion."
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