As a Vietnam Memorial Is Born, a Crippled Vet Celebrates a Quiet Victory Over Adversity
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is dedicated in Washington this week, the name Rick Seiver will not be among the 57,692 engraved there in tribute to the dead and missing of that war—and that is a miracle he attributes to God. On March 6, 1968, PFC Rick Seiver was pulling night guard duty in the central highlands war zone, an area where Viet Cong forces were active. He could hear the enemy moving in front of him but was unable to kill them because the delayed fuses on his grenades allowed them time to take cover. Frustrated, Seiver began cradling grenades against his body to muffle the pin-pop and then holding them for several seconds so they would go off sooner after landing. "I always liked taking chances," he says. "I just took one too many." That grenade was the last thing his right hand ever held: It went off, taking his hand and raking his right side and head with shrapnel. When he came to, he was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and it was two or three months later, he isn't sure which.
There are no typical veterans, least of all from Vietnam, but Rick Seiver, 35, belongs in a broad stream of Vietnam vets of a sort sometimes lost sight of in that wrenching war's wake. A receding memory for most Americans, the Vietnam War endures for Rick and thousands like him as a daily struggle to cope with the mental and physical aftermath of severe wounds. He went eagerly, leaving his home in northern Virginia at age 19, because he thought the cause was just; today, 16 years later, his entire left side immobile, missing most of his right arm below the elbow, his speech slowed as a result of his head wounds, he still thinks the cause was just. Once he wore his Army shirt to a party and the host greeted him with, "I see you have your killer shirt on," but because of the severity of his injuries Seiver has faced less of that than many who came back from Vietnam. A born-again Christian who is blessed with a happy marriage and four kids, he blames only his country's lack of will for what happened there. "I tell my children I went to fight Communists because they didn't believe in God," he says. "But our own government had rejected God quite a bit. God executed judgment on us by giving us poor leadership, and that's why Vietnam turned out to be such a fiasco. If we had had strong leaders who gave orders to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong harbor, the war would have been over in a year."
Rick Seiver was a patriotic, rowdy boy when Vietnam escalated. "All my life I wanted to be in the Army," recalls Rick, whose father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force. "Growing up, every time there was an Army movie I'd go. I loved to make models of tanks and buy Army things. As a kid I was pretty wild and rebellious, in and out of trouble. You know, stealing the domes off police cars to make lamps and throwing eggs in the movie theater, seeing what I could get away with. The whole year after I turned 18 I was just waiting to be drafted, but I never heard nothing so I just finally enlisted. I wanted to go to Vietnam—I've always been an adventurer and it sounded exciting. I thought it was prestigious to go to war because, as Americans, we always won."
After airborne infantry training Seiver got himself assigned to the 101st Airborne "because I thought the patch looked neat and they were the Screaming Eagles, which sounded tough"—and then, after a time spent "shuffling papers," he was assigned to Vietnam.
"On the ship over I heard all these tales from guys who'd been there," he says. "You expect to get into action right away, find tunnels where the VC have big caches. But it's kind of amazing. I didn't see much action, just cutting brush and a few chopper assaults, not the all-out firefight I was wanting. Maybe there was more—there's just bits and pieces of things I can remember about being over there. But I don't have an exciting story to tell you. My dreams for adventure and excitement never got fulfilled there.
"Sometimes we would go out in the boonies for a month, but our goal was always illusive. We were noisy, they were quiet, so they always heard us coming a mile away and slipped off. I'd think, 'Here we are, soldiers from the United States, you'd think we could snuff these VC out immediately and just be done with it.' We'd talk ourselves up, saying, 'I can't wait till we really get 'em!' But we never did. It was so frustrating night after night, hearing VC sneaking around right in front of us, I started taking chances with grenades. Well, I held onto one too long. The fact that I still have my head—well, it's a miracle."
Seiver was hospitalized for two years; he doesn't remember them clearly. "Once I realized what had happened," he says, his voice cracking, "I just didn't know what was going to become of me. I could never get my words out—it was all jumbled up. I was pretty messed up mentally." He couldn't move his wheelchair because his only functioning extremity, his right foot, slid on the highly polished floors. Heavily drugged, he couldn't believe he had no hand. "I began feeling my hand and seeing my skin move as I moved individual fingers. I told the occupational therapist, 'Look what they've done! They've put skin over my hand! They've made a mistake!' "
Then came a series of turnabouts. He was born again and "had a hope, a reason for living." He got a new roommate at the Washington, D.C. Veterans Administration Hospital: Max Cleland, who had lost an arm and both legs and later became Carter's chief of the Veterans Administration. "Max would swing himself out of bed, lower himself into his wheelchair and come help me," Seiver recalls. "I realized, 'Hey, I've still got plenty left to work with. Don't cry about it.' " After a friendly therapist got his drug dosage reduced, his mind started improving, and in September 1969 he was sent to a Forestville, Md. nursing home. "It really scared me. A buddy told me, 'It's a place where you sit around and watch TV till you die.' I thought they'd given up on me." But the home was carpeted. He could move himself with his right foot and, proudly, sent his motorized chair back.
He also made friends, especially with a high school student who was an evening receptionist. "Rick would get tired of teasing old people so he'd come and bother me," Carolyn Ward recalls. Finally, hesitantly, he asked for a date. The month he was released, September 1971, they were married. "There were a lot of people who were afraid that I just had my head in the clouds," Carolyn, now 29, admits. "And if I'd known how many obstacles would come along, I wouldn't have done it. It's hard to keep a marriage together even when you marry somebody normal. But I wouldn't trade my marriage for anything now."
After taking college accounting classes and finding he couldn't keep up, Rick took bookkeeping at the Maryland Rehabilitation Center in Baltimore where he could set his own pace and did so well that one company hired him on a trial basis. He handled most of the work but he could not grasp the essential, flimsy pieces of carbon paper and was let go. In 1976 the family moved to Mt. Airy, Md., where he is now a trustee of the Full Gospel Church and back in accounting classes at Frederick Community College. The Seivers live on his benefits (he is considered 100 percent disabled), but he hopes to find work after completing his two-year degree. Carolyn regularly kisses him when she passes his chair and the kids—Gregory, Barbara, Ken and Joseph—clamber up in his lap.
"My progress has been slow—steadily slow," Rick concludes, "but I wouldn't like this story to come out saying something real mushy like 'He's overcome so many barriers he's an inspiration to everybody.' I'd rather give the glory to God. I think having a memorial is great. I start off not wanting to include myself among the people who deserve recognition because I don't want to glorify myself. Then I have to stop and say, 'Hey, wait a minute. I was in Vietnam too.' After all these years, it's really great to realize that our country still cares about what all of us did."
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