Article about Jerry Stadtmiller (below the video) is written by Jack Lyon, a Marine platoon commander in Vietnam who received the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Navy Commendation with Combat V and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry. The City of San Diego honored Jack with the 2014 Keith M Turnham Humanitarian Award.
The Warrior of the Heart
It is an honor for me to share a few observations about my pal Jerry as we turn this page in his story of a life of miracles. Thank you to Phil, the Board, Marilyn, the residents and to VVSD. Jerry, tonight we all celebrate the goodness that surrounds you. The purity of your personal truth which you love to share, your willingness to listen, your courage in public are inspirational. You have an authenticity and sincerity that are palpable.
In 1967, Jerry left the University and joined the USMC-he volunteered. After Boot Camp and AIT, he went to Vietnam and joined “L” Co 3/4. He was an 0311—a Grunt. After tasting the full horror of killing and the ugliness of War in a few short weeks, on June 15th 1968, in the hills overlooking Khe Sahn, his position was overrun and he was shot point blank twice with an AK47 through the right side of his face. These wounds left him 95 % blind, with a slight pre-frontal brain injury, 2/3rds of his teeth missing, 1/3 rd of his tongue gone and he had no sense of smell. It is a miracle that Jerry survived. His buddies Mac and Bobby did not–they are on the Wall…
He was, and I believe remains, the most seriously wounded Marine treated at Balboa. He has persevered through score of operations and surgical procedures. What is the miracle of all this is that he remains open and trusting and available to life and his life honors and bestows great respect on those who now are on our Wall.
In 1980, At the first Rap Group I attended, organized by our personal Saint, Father Bill Mahedy, Jerry taught us a very profound lesson; the depth of denial in each of us. His wounds are and were visible and what he had overcome to be there was monumental. Father Bill was running the Group and was the Team Leader at the then new Vet Center. Bill had met Jerry before Jerry had joined the Marine Corps at a Retreat in Julian and had come to visit him at Balboa after he was wounded. He touched and held Jerry in that meeting and in that moment of touching Grace joined them.
During our rap group, Jerry shared that he did not feel that he belonged there with us as he had been in Country only one month – “not really a Veteran” – that blew my mind — my God if he is not a Veteran what the hell am I? Jerry had his own denial—no guide dog, big bear hugs, racing around, cooking at his Dad’s Albie’s Steak and Eggs restaurant. I remember going there with our pal Cuckoo and there was Jerry , flames all around, laughing and yelling in the kitchen.
When you go to War, you cross a river and in that crossing, you get wet. Combat Stress is that wetness. The question is how quickly and skillfully do you dry out? My understanding is that we dry out the same way we got wet- together–with each other. This was the magic of Uncle Bill—he taught us that–and together we began to dry out and heal. Jerry has continued that work and has touched the lives of hundreds of Combat Veterans and their families.
In that initial meeting was a Special Forces Captain, Steve Mason (aka Cuckoo) who came to love Jerry and he continually assured me that, despite his slightly skewed sense of humor, Jerry was a Renaissance Man. Cuckoo wrote books of published poetry about our readjustment and reintegration – read “Johnny’s Song” – a rare gift. I now know that Cuckoo was right about Jerry.
We know that true combat took place at the immediate intersection of life and death – and at that moment, in that instant, at that cross road, you are beyond the mind–beyond thoughts and words. Each of us has struggled to understand that or explain this but the truth is that this experience is beyond words, beyond the mind. Our tool (the brain housing group) is maladaptive and not up to the task. Frustration at this grows as we wrestle with the eternal existential questions of “why did I survive?” “Why SSgt. McCarthy and not me?” All we can do is to be present, to honor life, to listen and simply allow that knowing. This is the way we find each other.
Death, as it sits on our shoulder, becomes a confidant – it reminds us of the sanctity of life and by how thin a thread we are all here–each moment, each breath is precious – this moment right now.
Jerry is a lifelong San Diegan, went to Cathedral Catholic High School in Del Mar and graduated from SDSU earning his Masters in Social Work. War, however, took him into the true realm of spirituality and existential questioning – the land of the Mystics. He taught us the difference between the outside and the inside. Losing his sight allowed him to dive deeply into the inner world–he is a most sensitive being. The true Samurai knows that the real struggle lies not with the enemy we fight on the battlefield but with the darkness within. That, my friends, is the path upon which Jerry leads us. Jerry has learned to allow existence, to allow life. An example of the synchronicity – this allowing – was when Jerry went to the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial in 1993. In 1990, Helen Roth wrote a poem entitled “Eyes” telling how she had been a surgical nurse as they fought for this horribly maimed Marine’s life. Their eyes, their souls met and they each realized their oneness. Yet the Marine soon left and she continued her blessed mission of nursing- not knowing how he fared. This haunted her for years. In 1993, Helen chose to come to that same dedication and unexpectedly she met her wounded Marine-our pal Jerry–again. God, grace, existence- whatever word you choose- that was a blessing for them and for every one there at the dedication. I urge you to read her poem. Your heart will open.
Jerry has been involved in all facets of the Veteran experience – but he was never a professional Veteran. He is and always will be a Warrior.
• He was President of Chapter 472 of the VVA;
• He was instrumental in the movement of the 1969 Peace Memorial to the current site at the Veterans memorial Chapel on Park Blvd.;
• He has spoken scores of times at all types of gatherings carrying the message of honor for the Warriors.;
• Jerry led us all in reaching out to the Vietnamese in our Community, especially the Veterans;
• Jerry went back to Vietnam in 1998 on a trip in which he biked 1,100 miles from Hanoi to Saigon and his understanding of his path in life was solidified when he was forgiven by a 12 year old Vietnamese girl. That openness, that forgiveness is the essence of the struggle and of his work It is where our self esteem and worth are hiding.
For the past 11 years he has worked here at VVSD as a Counselor running the PTSD Groups both here and at the Vet Center. He is simply one of the grunts, just a little further down the path. He is for real – the Warriors can “smell” that.
His presence and authenticity have brought great honor to VVSD. We have been blessed with outstanding leaders over the years to include RVK, Al, and for sure Phil– but Jerry has certainly helped set the tone for our collective accomplishments and for the well-being of the combat veterans.
Now we must stop and recognize Jerry’s wife, Pat. Pat married Jerry after the war and his wounds and has been literally at his side ever since. They have two grown children, Amy and Mandy. Pat is a most remarkable lady in her own right and on behalf of all of us Thank You – you are an angel. “Medals in Heaven” as people always say to my wife.
Jerry is a Warrior. He is the Warrior of the Heart – full of love and joy. He was torn wide open by the war and recognizes that the healing is an inside job. He struggles with the term “disorder” as a label – Jerry is the embodiment of Post Combat Stress growth. The reality of what he has come through and the humility of his presence is astounding and is a lesson for all of us.
There is no quit in Jerry Stadtmiller – there is only adapt and overcome. He is an inspiration, fully engaged and always positive with his bear hug and a raucous laugh. Jerry is also quite outspoken and will not back down; his posture and his bearing say it all. Bring your “A” game if you are going to take him on or if your position or story is weak. He is a ferocious advocate.
As RVK said to me yesterday “If I had to mount out a team for a Combat Patrol, Jerry would be on it – vision or not – he is on the team. He never waivers, he has your back, he will not budge.”
Jerry has totally earned our respect, our honor and our love. His presence lifts us up.
We are all part grace and part gravity. The challenge for us is to feed the light – feed the grace. The darkness feeds itself. Like Bill Mahedy, Jerry is a source of nourishment for that light and for that we are most grateful.
In Marine Corps terms – he is and he lives…
Thank you Brother
(Jack Lyon wrote this article for Jerry Stadtmiller’s retirement party)