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Jim Murray

In Return, He Found His Strength

November 25, 1986|Jim Murray

On April 1, 1969, when Bob Wieland arrived in Vietnam, he was convinced he would never leave there alive.

He was half right.

Only the top part of him got out of Vietnam.

Bob Wieland went into combat as a 6-foot, 200-pound left-handed pitcher three major league franchises were interested in. He had a live fastball and, as they say, "a good command of his pitches." He fairly glowed with good health and well-being.

When he left Vietnam, he was 3 1/2 feet tall and weighed 87 pounds. He had a 106-degree temperature, malaria; his blood pressure was hovering between indistinct and invisible, and he was packed in ice and strapped to a board.

"Outside of that," he confides, "I wasn't feeling too bad."

The bad news was, he was going to live.

Given his predicament, a lot of people would consider that a rotten break. Not Bob Wieland.

There is a scene in the movie "King's Row" in which the actor, Ronald Reagan, returns to consciousness after a horrendous accident to find his legs gone at the knee. "Where's the rest of me?" he asks piteously.

Bob Wieland can relate. But the extraordinary thing about what was left of Bob Wieland was that it wasn't bitter. Quite the opposite. Bob Wieland thought he was the luckiest guy in Vietnam when he woke up. He was just ready to thank his lucky stars there was anything left of him.

On the afternoon of June 14, 1969, a combat battalion of the 25th Division, Alpha Company, Second Platoon, set out on a search-and-destroy mission in the Hobo Woods sector of Vietnam 28 miles north of Saigon. Bob was attached to the unit as a combat medic. Some time around 2 o'clock, the company walked into a clover-leaf mine field. Wieland stepped on a booby-trapped 82-millimeter mortar shell.

Now, these shells are constructed to blow up a tank, and it was no trick at all for one of them to tear a human being in two or, indeed, to kill several others within a 30-yard radius.

So, Bob Wieland, when he came to, was not surprised there was something missing, he was surprised there was anything left.

And grateful.

"Bitter? Bang on walls? Curse? No. I felt like 10,000 pounds had been lifted off me," Wieland said. "I felt like I was going to get killed over there. Like, when I got there, I asked the sergeant, you know, like what the plans were over there, and he said 'Don't plan on going back to the United States alive.'

"So, I figured I beat the price. Like, my best friend, Jerome Lubeno, who I was trying to save when I stepped on the mortar, he's at Wall 22 West, Line 47 in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. That's all that's left of him. I got a break."

At Valley Forge Hospital, to which he was evacuated, Bob quickly demonstrated that the essential parts of Bob Wieland had been saved intact--the heart, lungs, the mind, the spirit. "Hey, I still got my hair, even," he said.

What he didn't have was legs.

"The Army fitted me with prosthesis, artificial legs but they were too slow. I had places to go and people to see and things to do. I couldn't wait for my legs to catch up."

The Army thought he needed psychiatry. "I went in and talked to the psychiatrist 30 to 35 minutes. But I finally got him straightened out," offers Bob.

He was more interested in the therapy program. "Most of the vets grumbled and said, 'Therapy? Naw!' But not me. I said 'Wow! I might break a world record!' That's when they sent me to the psychiatrist."

The remarkable thing is that, eight years later, at a power weightlifting competition in Santa Monica, Bob Wieland did break a world record. Competing as a bantamweight, 122 pounds, he bench-pressed 303 pounds, breaking the record of 290.

Don't look for it in the record books. "The AAU brought out a rule. They said the record didn't count because I was--get this!-- not wearing shoes! I says, 'How can I wear shoes? I'm not wearing feet!' "

Anyone can run a marathon on legs. Anyone can cross the country in an airplane.

Bob Wieland does those things on his hands. He went from coast to coast on his hands in 3 years 8 months 6 days. He "ran" the New York Marathon this month in 98 hours 37 minutes 17 seconds.

He propels himself in a curious leapfrog motion that sometimes impels passing motorists to think some creature from another planet has landed on our highways. "They think I'm E.T. wearing a cowboy hat," he says, laughing.

In New York, he scuttled through the streets for 40 straight hours before stopping for a nap and was still on the course two days after the race had finished.

"The police were taking down the barriers and the water stands and here comes this thing swinging down the street yelling, 'The race isn't over!' All those people in the high-rises are leaning out the windows and yelling, 'God bless you!' and, 'Go for it!' "

The director of the race, Fred Lebow, replaced the finish-line clock and the tape when he heard Contestant No. C783 was swinging down Fifth Avenue, two miles from the finish, three days after the start.

Doing handstands for 26 miles 385 yards is child's play after doing them for 2,500 miles, the distance from the Pacific Ocean to the Vietnam Memorial. So, Bob hopes to be given an even bigger head start in the Los Angeles Marathon next March 1. If the city agrees, he'll be permitted to start two days ahead of the field.

"If they can't do that, I have an alternative suggestion," Bob Wieland says. "Let the rest of the field run it on their hands, too!"

Long-distance running is known for increasing the vital capacity, the size and function of the heart and lungs. And it has become a cliche to say of a brave person fighting huge odds that he is all heart. Bob Wieland may be the first person of whom it is literally true. Either way you want to take it.

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