As Bill Fero, 39, spins his wheelchair through Hanoi’s crowded streets, past the old French colonial buildings with their peeling layers of whitewash, bicyclists turn their heads and smile, flashing the thumbs-up sign. In a barber shop, customers take turns riding in his chair as he is lathered up for a shave. “We like you better than the Russians,” the barber says. “The Russians don’t smile. They clink their glasses and demand service, but they don’t tip.” Four waitresses in a government-owned bar playfully draw straws to see which one will be Fero’s girlfriend. At a disco, college students buy him beers and applaud as he twirls his wheelchair on the dance floor. The band is playing “Yesterday.”
In the homeland of his former enemies, on a mission of mercy to deliver medical supplies, Vietnam veteran Bill Fero is completing a long journey back from despair and self-pity. “For the first time since I lost my legs, I feel alive,” he says. “It’s like I’m coming back to a part of myself.”
It is a part he could not have imagined 17 years ago when he first arrived in Vietnam, eager to fight a war that was already a dirty word to many Americans. First assigned to a headquarters company, he demanded his day in the field. “I went to Vietnam to see action and excitement,” he says, “not to type and use a dictionary all day.” Three weeks later, in a cemetery near Da Nang, he was badly wounded and his right foot blown off.
Over the next eight months, Fero lost both his legs, slowly, to infection. He remained in military hospitals for a total of three years. Unable to cope with what he calls “life as a cripple,” he twice attempted suicide by swallowing painkillers and cutting his wrists. Released in 1974 from a Veterans Administration hospital in Milwaukee, he raged around the country for the next four years on “a self-destructive orgy of booze and drugs.” Finally a high-school friend told him he had two choices: straighten out or get better at suicide. Fero chose the former.
Fulfilling a lifetime dream, Fero purchased a farm in his hometown of Whitewater, Wis., in 1978 with a Veterans Administration loan. Perversely—since he was filled with hate for the Vietnamese—he heeded the urging of a local minister and allowed a refugee family to move in with him. For five months he tormented them, exacting a kind of revenge. “I demanded that they wait on me hand and foot,” he says. “I was the master, and they were slaves at my beck and call. And no matter what I did, all I got back was kindness. They took care of me when I was drunk. I cussed at them and threw pots and chairs. They gave me presents on Christmas and my birthday.”
After the family moved on, Fero took in a Vietnamese couple. Ten weeks later, the woman gave birth. “I fell in love with the baby,” he says. He sponsored five more families, and he recalls, “With each family, my feelings melted. If it wasn’t for them, I might have stayed a bitter basket case, still fighting the war.” On this, his third trip to Vietnam in less than a year, Fero is bringing with him more than 3,000 pounds of supplies donated to the desperately understocked hospitals of America’s last battleground foe. Although he is outwardly confident of an enthusiastic welcome, his stomach is still living in the past. “I’m a nervous wreck,” he admits on the Thai International Airlines flight from Bangkok to Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport, as he gulps Rolaids.
Although the sight of the airport guards in their pith helmets and olive green uniforms brings back “the pain of seeing guys killed and the pain of my own wounds,” Fero’s uneasiness is quickly allayed. His sandaled host from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Nguyen Hong Quang, waves an exuberant welcome after Fero hoists himself down the rain-soaked airplane stairway and muscles himself into his wheelchair. Then the official whisks him through customs and on to an air-conditioned van.
Back home, Fero is just another survivor. In Vietnam, he has become a savior. “Here, I can make a difference,” he says. “In the U.S., people tend to be either arrogant or patronizing around someone in a wheelchair, but the Vietnamese aren’t like that. Maybe it’s because they have seen so many victims of war on their own side. They make me feel whole again.”
In a strange way, Bill Fero is a citizen of both America and Vietnam. His disability, which handicaps him in so many other ways, has allowed him to become an ambassador between the two nations, to heal the wounds of war and in turn to be healed himself. The Vietnamese call him “Mr. Bill, the Medicine Man.” Kids follow him everywhere. More than 13 years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnamese still suffer from the war’s devastation, and they might be expected to view an American soldier with lingering bitterness. Instead, he is hailed.
On the second night of this visit to Vietnam, Fero is the guest of honor at a dinner given by Nguyen Can, a deputy foreign minister. Fero dresses in blue jeans and a red Coca-Cola T-shirt, guzzles beer shamelessly and afterward suggests a game of cards.
Vietnamese officials, apparently charmed by Fero’s informal approach to diplomacy, are hoping that he and other visitors to Vietnam will drum up grassroots support in the U.S. for the normalization of relations between the two countries and help clear the way for foreign investment. Consequently the five-day agenda that officials have prepared for Fero’s visit to Hanoi is designed to impress upon him the depth of Vietnam’s postwar suffering. At Viet Due Hospital, a turn-of-the-century facility built by the French, a white-coated administrator, complaining of shortages of everything from vitamins to surgical equipment, guides Fero through wards crowded with rusted metal beds. Bugs fly through screenless windows. In the emergency room, a World War I-vintage wooden wheelchair stands by the wall.
Bach Mai Hospital, destroyed in 1972 by American B-52 bombers, presents a similar picture of deprivation. The rebuilt 900-bed facility is one of the best in Vietnam, but doctors tell Fero they lack antibiotics and have to wash and reuse surgical gloves. Fero dutifully notes every request for supplies, and promises to do the best he can. “It doesn’t matter if the Vietnamese are using me,” says Fero, who hopes to persuade American veterans groups to adopt some of these hospitals. “If people are getting helped, that’s all that matters.”
Meeting disabled Vietnamese veterans is, for Fero, the most gratifying part of the trip. At a rehabilitation workshop in Hanoi, crippled vets proudly tell Fero about their families and ask him whether he has a wife in the U.S. “No,” says Fero, lifting his empty pants leg. “American women don’t like this.”
“Then,” replies one veteran, “you need to find yourself a Vietnamese wife.”
Outside Hanoi, at the Thuan Thanh District Center for Invalids, Fero meets 200 paraplegic and quadriplegic veterans and fights back tears. A former North Vietnamese soldier named Be Van Nhot, paralyzed from the waist down in the final days of the war, pulls his primitive wheelchair over to Fero and squeezes his arm. “We cannot think of the past,” he tells Fero. “We must share the future.”
For Fero, the kind of warmth and respect he has found in Vietnam has always been in short supply. The son of an alcoholic father, he dropped out of school at 16 and became “a street kid playing the angles” in Whitewater. After he graduated from petty larceny to auto theft, a judge allowed him to choose the Army over reform school. For 27 months Fero served as a cook and orderly stateside, several times landing in the stockade for insubordination. When his tour ended, he reenlisted. “All the guys I became friends with were going to Vietnam,” he says. “I thought it was a big game. The guys who had been there came back talking about the women and the R&R. They made it sound like Shangri-La.”
Late in 1971, Fero was on a night mission near Da Nang when a booby trap exploded, killing 18 of the 21 soldiers with him. “All I remember is the flash,” Fero says. “I couldn’t see. My jaw was shattered. I had shrapnel in my neck, back, arms and legs, and my right foot was blown off at the ankle.”
Fero was shipped home from Vietnam, not to return until the fall of 1987. Determined by that time to purge the lingering bitterness from his system, Fero, then a struggling farmer who moonlighted on a General Motors assembly line, joined a group of veterans traveling to Vietnam for a three-week tour. “I wanted to get to the root of my feelings,” he says. “I wanted to get past my anger and depression.” He was astonished to be treated with kindness, and he was troubled by a visit to Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where doctors complained of a critical shortage of medical supplies. “After going through all the surgery I did,” he says, “I couldn’t imagine surviving without antibiotics and painkillers. I used to consider myself strong, but I’m weak compared to the Vietnamese.”
When Fero returned home, his coworkers on the GM night shift noticed he had become more introspective. He complained about American wastefulness and harped about shortages in Vietnam. Finally, nurses at the plant suggested that he stop talking and send some supplies. With their help, he requested donations from churches, local businesses, even Fortune 500 companies. Few of them responded.
“No one could understand why I wanted to help the Vietnamese, since they were the ones who blew off my legs,” says Fero. Soon he began receiving anonymous phone calls from people who swore at him for being a “commie lover” and a friend of “the gooks.” Still, by last February, Fero had collected 947 pounds of supplies from medical-equipment and pharmaceutical companies.
After taking out a $2,500 personal loan to cover his expenses, Fero flew to Ho Chi Minh City to make sure the shipment got to Cho Ray Hospital intact. “The way they acted, you would have thought I was building a wing on the hospital,” he says. For 18 days he was wined and dined by hospital staff and government officials. Overwhelmed by the gratitude, Fero decided one shipment was not enough. He became obsessed with helping. “I saw that I finally had a chance to leave some sort of imprint,” he says.
Back at Cho Ray again, Fero watches the doctors’ excited reactions to the sorely needed microscopes and the thermometers he has brought from the U.S. Completed in 1975, just before the fall of Saigon, Cho Ray was originally furnished with up-to-date American and Japanese equipment. Now much of that needs to be replaced, and Fero slowly wheels through the hospital, making a seemingly endless list. Operating-room lamps have missing bulbs. Torn aspirators are patched with bandages. The emergency room does not have a working defibrillator for cardiac cases. There are no dialysis machines. Most appalling, in Fero’s view, is that patients are dying of secondary infections because of a shortage of antibiotics.
In the crowded surgical ward, where critically ill patients share beds, Fero is confronted by a scene that brings back the war with a jolt. An 11-year-old boy has lost an eye and an arm after stepping on a mine. Two other men, both amputees, have also been wounded by leftover ordnance. Fero turns away, unable for the moment to cope with the sight of wounds so like his own.
In a larger sense, though, Fero has learned to cope with such wounds every day of his life. When he was hit 17 years ago, Fero lost more of himself than his legs. Now he has recovered more than he lost. He understands that the pain of war will always be with him, but he no longer allows those wounds to poison his mind. “I’ve gone through my own personal hell,” he says, “and because of it, I’ve finally found a reason for living.”
—David Grogan, and Civia Tamarkin in Vietnam