Disabled veteran: ‘Handicaps are what you make them’

By: Jennie Miller | Troy Times | Published December 21, 2011

 John Todd, 65, of Oxford, who is blind due to injuries sustained in the Vietnam War, prepares to make a cut with a table saw at the Disabled American Veterans of Oakland County Chapter 19 in Berkley. He is overseen by Tom Coward, 64, of Roseville, who lost his leg in the Vietnam War. Both men are helping to renovate the DAV building.

John Todd, 65, of Oxford, who is blind due to injuries sustained in the Vietnam War, prepares to make a cut with a table saw at the Disabled American Veterans of Oakland County Chapter 19 in Berkley. He is overseen by Tom Coward, 64, of Roseville, who lost his leg in the Vietnam War. Both men are helping to renovate the DAV building.

Photo by Jennie Miller

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BERKLEY — There’s much a soldier stands to lose when he goes off to war.

For Tom Coward, he lost his leg. John Todd returned home without his sight, and much of his hearing.

But while disabled, these men are not broken.

“There’s nothing that I can’t do,” said Coward, 64, of Roseville, a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, who stepped on a booby-trapped 105 mm howitzer round while crossing a bridge in the delta region near Saigon. “I’ve always been very positive. When I lost my leg, what I told my physical therapist was, ‘get me a broom and I’m going to walk.’ One way or another, I was bound and determined to get back to where I was. So with being positive … it makes an ability out of a disability. Handicaps are what you make them — if you want to be handicapped, you can be real handicapped.”

Todd, 65, of Oxford, a Cobra pilot during the Vietnam War, was struck in the face with a .50-caliber bullet fired from a machine gun. He was operating a helicopter and assisting American troops on the ground who were under attack when he was hit. He’s just grateful he’s alive.

“If you had given me a hypothetical of being hit with this .50-caliber machine gun — and it tore up the aircraft pretty much totally; I don’t know how we ever flew back — I would have said we both would have died — the copilot and I,” Todd said. “We would have crashed and we both would have died. But somehow I was alive and I’m fine. So I feel so lucky.”

Todd said he heard his copilot incorrectly reporting his demise.

“The last thing I remember was the copilot talking to the other aircraft, and he said that I had been killed,” Todd said. “But I couldn’t tell him — I couldn’t communicate with him. And then I remember I woke up and then I was in hospital for a little over a year. I was blind and I have a hearing problem. But the fortunate thing is my brain is OK — I have kind of a funny sense of humor, but you can’t blame the North Vietnamese for that.”

Todd and Coward, both members of the Disabled American Veterans of Oakland County Chapter 19 in Berkley, love to defy the odds.

Which is why it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary to see Todd, in all his blind glory, operating a table saw without any assistance.

With a tool belt around his waist, Todd made his way from the saw, a fresh cut piece of crown molding in hand, over to the doorway where he set it in place and nailed it into the wall. It was cut perfectly.

Todd and Coward and several other disabled veterans are putting the finishing touches on their organization’s new home. The chapter purchased the Berkley building last year and has since gutted the place.

“It’s been a total transformation,” said DAV Cmdr. Ken Richardson, who served with Coward in Vietnam. “We’ve been working in phases. About half of the work was done by (our) members — based on the limitations of disabilities, we had to hire contractors (for the rest).”

“Limitations” seems an ill-fitting word as Coward wheels his chair around to show off the bathrooms he renovated, and the cabinets and counters he installed in the back room.

Coward is an avid outdoorsman — an expert trap shooter with a shotgun. He competes in the Special Olympics and has medaled every time he’s taken part in archery, trap and air rifles. He hunts, he fishes — he lives for the outdoors.

Despite using a wheelchair the last several years since his good knee wore out, Coward still isn’t complaining.

“I have no regrets about going in the service, and I have no regrets that I lost my leg,” he said. “I did what I felt was right because we live in this great country.”

Todd, an attorney and longtime professor at Rochester College who also serves as judge advocate for the DAV, purchased a house at auction in Oxford three years ago that needed a complete overhaul.

“I couldn’t resist it, because I knew that I could make it into something really beautiful,” he said, as Richardson shrugged and nodded, amazed and impressed at both of the men’s inability to let disabilities stand in their way.

For more information about the DAV of Oakland County, Chapter 19, visit www.davoakland.org.

 

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