A soldier's war finally ends

BY RICHARD HYATT Staff Writer  Ledger-Enquirer Columbus, GA

With an Alabama rain coming down Friday, the Vietnam War finally ended for Kenny McGarity.

The only weapons fired came in his memory as a grateful nation presented his widow a folded flag and three wartime brothers remembered Sept. 21, 1968 -- the day McGarity's chopper was blown out of the sky and his 19-year-old body was blown apart.

Some believe this story should have ended in Vietnam. But it didn't. It didn't end until Wednesday, when the decorated veteran died of natural causes in a local hospital.

He was 58.

On Friday -- 38 years after he lost his legs and his eyes -- his wife of 35 years, two daughters and six grandchildren buried a true American hero and a soldier who never stopped fighting.

Soldiers no older than McGarity was in Vietnam stood at parade rest as the

Rev. John Rigby said the former GI harbored no regrets. The minister told him to rest in peace for his wounds were not in vain.

"Numbered among the heroes for this old preacher is a man named Kenny."

Lives he touched

Kenneth Joe McGarity's life was changed in that godforsaken jungle. So were others.

There is Dr. Kenneth Swan, an Army surgeon criticized for not letting McGarity die.

There is Otto Merz, the soldier on the ground that McGarity came to rescue.

There is George Meeker, who called him the brother he never had.

There is Bob Taylor, an Army buddy who said McGarity had been with him for 38 years and will be with him forever.

Merz, Meeker and Taylor stood by their comrade's casket Friday. Meeker offered a crisp salute.

Swan, a professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, couldn't be there. He sent messages to the family and hoped that flowers he sent arrived in time.

Swan never forgot his patient. He just didn't know his name.

"All I knew," he said, "was that we had the same first name."

Son of a war veteran

Kenny McGarity was an Army brat.

William McGarity, his father, fought in three wars. His son was born at Martin Army Hospital.

The younger McGarity joined the Army in 1966, leaving Phenix City's Central High School. Two years later he was in his second tour in Vietnam, one he volunteered for before his first was completed. He was a doorgunner with the 189th Assault Helicopter Company, guys known as the "Ghost Riders."

He was wounded on his first tour. But on a Sunday in 1968 the McGaritys got news that no parents want to receive.

Their son was 18, with a fiancee back in Phenix City, and he had lost his sight and both of his legs. He had been back in Vietnam only three weeks.

The father showed a reporter packages on the kitchen counter they planned to send their son. He pulled out socks from one, drab towels from the other.

Close to tears, he mumbled over the socks.

"Now he won't need them anymore."

Devastating injury

Dr. Kenneth Swan was new in country.

He graduated from Harvard then Cornell medical school. Now, he was an Army surgeon who had been in Vietnam four weeks.

On Sept. 21, 1968, he met Kenny McGarity.

His helicopter had been hit by a B-40 rocket and his wounds were severe. Besides the legs, he had been hit in the head. His body was littered with metal fragments.

His torso was spared, and that would be important.

"He was literally blown to pieces," Swan said.

We talked Friday, two hours before McGarity's funeral. The doctor needed no prodding. This was a day he remembered too well.

As McGarity was brought into the hospital, someone told Swan not to waste his time, that this one was dying.

Swan ignored the suggestion and started to work.

Seven hours later, McGarity was as stable as he would be and medics prepared to transport him to Japan.

"I thought he would die on the way," Swan said.

A superior officer later told him that colleagues thought he should have let McGarity die.

Swan stood firm. "I said that God will decide who lives or die."

Never forgotten

Swan was a respected physician with a worldwide reputation and he remembered a patient named Ken.

For years, he blocked out thoughts of that damaged body. He pictured a broken man who couldn't see, in a room littered with drugs, alcohol and cigarette butts.

The subject came up in an interview Swan gave to a writer doing an article about trauma care.

Once it was on his mind, Swan obsessed. He had to find him, had to know what his life had been, be it good or be it bad.

Swan had no luck for two years. Then the Army asked him to speak at a conference in Germany. The scheduled speaker had canceled and they were in a jam.

"I traded the Army my speaking appearance for his last name," Swan said.

The Army finally told him that his patient was a certified scuba diver with a wife and two kids. After hanging up the phone, he called back.

"I'm not sure this is my patient," Swan said.

"This is your patient. Don't argue with us," he was told.

Doctor and patient met here, in September 1991, and it was good for both of them.

Swan marveled at McGarity's attitude: "He's come through hell on Earth and he has come up smiling."

McGarity was grateful: "This doctor has been through the guilt trip of a lifetime. He's been asking himself all this time, 'Did I do the right thing?' If he hadn't stuck all the pieces back together, I wouldn't have this wonderful wife and these great children."

The experience was cleansing.

McGarity reconnected with fellows from the 189th. There were almost daily phone calls. He had lived in a cocoon. Now he was opening up.

The unit held its 2003 reunion in Atlanta so he could be there. In photographs, McGarity wears a perpetual smile.

Visiting McGarity was a singular event for a surgeon whose medical resume goes 32 pages.

Swan discovered that the patient with the battered body had found a life.

Through the years, McGarity learned to accept himself for the man he was, not the man he might have been.

"As doctors, our biggest job is restoring patients to society," Swan said. "Kenny was finally able to do this."

You don't have to ask whether Swan believes he did the right thing.

"Of course, I'd do it again," he said Friday. "I'd just operate faster."

Went to rescue twice

Merz made people laugh and he made people cry.

"I'm the root of all evil," he said Friday. "I'm the guy Kenny was coming to get."

In reach of McGarity's casket, Merz related how he needed saving again in 1992. Home from the war, Merz couldn't deal with the pain. McGarity rescued him again.

"So I might heal and be whole," he said.

Once words were spoken, Theresa McGarity said her husband was her world and now she doesn't have her world.

George Meeker, who was in Kenny McGarity's chopper that day said his buddy is surely in heaven because he had already gone through hell.

At 2:29 p.m., a young soldier played taps. Kenny McGarity's war was over at last.