Archive for Wednesday, October 24, 2001

A veteran’s view

Vietnam vet discusses recent events

October 24, 2001

In exasperation, Kenneth Atwell shakes a recent edition of Time magazine. A full-page color photo of Osama bin Laden dominates the cover.

"I'm going to write a letter to Time and tell them that's just what he wants he wants people to see his picture," Atwell said. "And then I'm going to cancel my subscription."

A Vietnam veteran, Atwell, 55, has lived at Tonganoxie Nursing Center since last year when an Oklahoma military care center where he lived, closed. Atwell, who is disabled from injuries suffered in Vietnam and from rheumatoid arthritis, decided then to move to Tonganoxie to be closer to his father, a 90-year-old retired physician in Overland Park.

As Atwell sits in his wheelchair near the nurses' station, nurses aides and nurses stop to talk. He draws each one into the conversation, asking about their hobbies or praising their skills at work. They hug and visit like old friends.

When Atwell was young, he twice ran the Pikes Peak marathon. He could sprint the half-mile in 1 minute, 47 seconds. And he trained as a wrestler.

But he has not been able to walk since a Naval saber jet he was piloting was shot down in Vietnam. Atwell normally makes a deliberate attempt to refrain from thinking or talking about Vietnam, where he served in the Navy in the late '60s and early '70s, because the thoughts and flashbacks haunt him in the night.

But for a moment he recalls the crash that took his right leg, and he recalls how gangrene soon necessitated the removal of all the toes on his remaining foot. His co-pilot's injuries were worse, Atwell said, recalling that he stayed by his side for three hours, futilely trying to help him survive.

After Vietnam, Atwell was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, which has now caused his fingers to splay out in all directions. If affects every joint he has left, he said. No one in his family has had rheumatoid arthritis and normally, he said, 80 percent of those who do have it are women. So, Atwell has a nagging wonder if chemicals encountered in Vietnam could have caused this condition. He also has lupus.

Another souvenir of Vietnam is the blindness in his right eye, caused by shrapnel. Clearly, for Atwell, life since Vietnam has not been easy.

But he made a life for himself, following up on his bachelor's degree at the University of Missouri, earning a master's degree in science at Central Missouri State, and finally, a doctorate in science at Oklahoma State University. He taught pre-med classes at Oklahoma State University.

It was at the University of Missouri, he said, where he learned to fly while participating in ROTC.

"I started out with a propeller, and then I said I wanted to fly something that went a little faster," Atwell said. "I liked speed."

So after enlisting in the Navy, he flew saber jets.

Recovering from Vietnam was tough.

"I didn't want to live," Atwell said.

But all his life, Atwell has enjoyed a challenge, so he proceeded with career plans plans stymied later by rheumatoid arthritis.

"I can't fly a plane anymore, I can't run anymore," Atwell said.

But he said there's one thing he probably could do, if students needed help with their studies: "I could probably teach," he said. "A challenge would be to tutor kids."

Atwell has been disturbed since Sept. 11. He says he tries to stay away from television, and so spends his days with his wheelchair parked near the nurses' station, a hub of activity. He understands all too well the tragedy of war.

He wonders why the innocent people who were killed in the Sept. 11 acts of terrorism aren't pictured on the cover of magazines, instead of bin Laden, a man the U.S. government says is responsible for the terrorism.

He wonders why Americans are making him a household name.

That's why the full-page color photo of bin Laden vexes him so.

"That's exactly what bin Laden wants," Atwell repeats. "He's a so-called dictator like Hitler he wanted people to see him."

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