War veteran talks about combat, addiction, recovery and faith at St. John’s Lutheran Church
What Ronald Schwerman remembers most about the morning of Feb. 27, 1967, was the near-deafening sound the rocket made when it exploded about 10 feet away from him.
Schwerman was stationed at Da Nang during the Vietnam War.
He was part of a United States Air Force crew that repaired equipment used to start military airplanes.
He and his fellow officers were just sitting down to take a break around 3 a.m. that morning when the Vietcong started lobbing 140-millimeter rockets into the American camp.
“They were very deadly — we were always afraid of them, anywhere we were,” he said of the rockets during a presentation at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Stacy Sunday. “I heard one for sure, maybe two, and then ‘Boom!’ It was the loudest thing I had ever heard in my life.’
That rocket did substantial damage, killing one of Schwerman’s comrades and leaving numerous others with grave injuries.
Of those who survived, Schwerman’s injuries were the most severe. He ended up losing both of his arms and his right leg.
Initially, a first responder thought he was dead, even though Schwerman said he kept trying to tell the man he was alive.
Later, the officer told him he couldn’t hear anything following the attack, and, given the severity of Schwerman’s injuries, had assumed he was dead.
If the officer had left him there, Schwerman probably would have died, but for a reason the officer couldn’t recall, he loaded Schwerman into a van filled with the wounded — those he knew were alive — to transport them all to a medical center about 5 miles away.
But before unloading the wounded at the center, the officer dumped Schwerman on the side of the road to free up room for more wounded in the van, again assuming he was dead.
The officer’s plan was to pick Schwerman’s body up later that day to have it tagged and put in a body bag.
When the officer arrived looking for Schwerman’s body, it was nowhere to be found. He asked personnel at the medical center where the body was, and they told him Schwerman was alive and in surgery.
Someone had apparently noticed he was not deceased and rushed him into the medical center.
“He was in shock when he found out I was still alive,” Schwerman said.
That was the start of Schwerman’s uphill battle to survive.
From Da Nang, he was treated in the Phillipines for about 10 days and was scheduled to be flown to Texas for further treatment, but his temperature spiked to 108 degrees en route and the plane had to land in Guam.
Schwerman had a massive infection, and it took medics at the Guam base about six weeks to nurse him back to health.
When he was healthy enough to travel again, Schwerman spent about seven months in Texas being treated for his injuries and was then finally sent back to Minnesota.
On Oct. 24, 1967, at the VA Hospital in Minneapolis, Schwerman was honorably discharged from the Air Force.
Absorbed by rage
Prior to going to Vietnam, Schwerman had lived in Duluth with his wife and two children.
When he came home from the war, he was a changed man — both physically and emotionally.
The physical limitations were difficult enough to deal with — he could do almost nothing without assistance — but the post-traumatic stress was perhaps even more crippling.
The rage fractured his relationship with his wife and two daughters, and after 12 years of marriage, she left, taking the children with her.
All during this time, Schwerman drank and smoked marijuana. He’d been a problem drinker since his teen years and had been using alcohol and marijuana to mask his stressful memories.
After his first wife left, Schwerman said he drank less for a time, mainly because he had to be more alert around home-care aides who weren’t always looking out for his best interests.
“One aide tried to get me to sign over my power of attorney to him,” Schwerman recalled.
Eventually, Schwerman’s nephew came to be his aide, which in some ways was a better situation because he helped Schwerman to become more independent by prompting him to learn how to use prosthetic arms, but his nephew also had his own battles with alcohol. The two would regularly go out to bars to drink and smoke cigarettes.
Once Schwerman became more comfortable with the prosthetic arms, his nephew left to go work with another disabled person.
Schwerman could do much more with the aid of the arms, but still needed someone to care for him, so he hired another aide. She was a Mormon and tried to get him to convert to her faith, but he didn’t want to.
The two became close and developed a romantic relationship, but that relationship ended,
like others Schwerman had tried to forge since coming back from Vietnam.
Meeting her did encourage Schwerman to learn more about his Lutheran faith, though. He started reading the Bible, eventually bought the entire works of Martin Luther, and in 1987, he began going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
He’s been sober for 26 years.
About 14 years ago, he met his now wife, Eydie, and the two were married after about nine months of courtship.
Schwerman credits his faith with helping him through his darkest days.
“Every day is getting better,” he said. “My whole life has changed. It’s been quite a trip, all the way from Vietnam.”