Veterans Day

Pronounced Dead in Vietnam, Lt. Bill Haneke Inspires Post-9/11 Veterans

Haneke is “paying forward” the care he received over nearly five years and 200 major medical procedures by helping post-9/11 veterans, reports Sandra McElwaine.

Forty-four years ago, Lt. William G. Haneke was pronounced dead five times over 48 hours.

The first time was after a Viet Cong–detonated mine catapulted him 80 feet into the air and left him hanging sideways on a barbed-wire fence.

Video courtesy of The Center for Oral History at West Point. See Haneke's full interview here and here.

When he came to, his left eye was blown out, he could not see and could hardly breathe. The carotid artery on one side of his neck was severed and every time his heart beat, blood would spurt out and bounce off his shoulder. His right leg was gone above the knee, his jaw shattered and part of his brain exposed. Dazed and crippled by pain he was paralyzed and could only muster a desperate prayer for help.

Almost immediately, he says he heard a soothing voice telling him: “Turn your head to the left and relax. Have faith and I will see you through this ordeal.”

He did as he was instructed, thereby partially closing the artery and stanching the flow of blood, and also sliding his teeth from his throat so he could breathe easier.

“All I can say is it was God,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Chesterfield, Va. ”It was a divine voice, and although I thought I was dying, it did settle me down and I wasn’t panicking quite as much.”

After some of his men managed to free him from the barbed-wire fence, a chopper with a medic arrived and the 26-year-old began a two-day sojourn, hopscotching to a series of field hospitals.

At each stop he was given plasma, and last rites. He was not a Catholic, but his dog tags had been blown off and no one was taking any chances. “I was well protected,” Haneke says now.

At his last stop, with no discernible breath or pulse, he was covered with a blanket, wheeled into a side room and left for dead.

Once again, through the pain and haze, he heard the same voice. This time, it urged him to ”give them a sign you are alive. It’s very important you do this. I will see you through and you will survive.”

Unable to speak, he summoned enough energy to thrash about knocking over the IV pole containing bottles of blood. The smashing of the glass alerted the nurses that he was still alive, and they rushed him into surgery. After more than 15 hours on the operating table, he spent two weeks in a critical unit until he could be airlifted to a military hospital in Japan and finally to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Bethesda, Md.

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It took four-and-a-half years and more than 200 major medical procedures before he was able to return some semblance of his former life.

As an Army brat and a graduate of West Point he realized his military days were over, but he decided to develop a plan for his future. “I was told I would never be able to sit up, ambulate, have a normal life in any way shape or form and that made me really angry. I was going to prove them all wrong,” he says.

With one good eye and one glass eye, a cranial plastic plate, a reconstructed leg and foot, and a pair of crutches he set out to pursue a career in health care in order to become a patient advocate.

“I felt that God had kept me around, so I was going to do it,’ he says.

His goal—what he calls “paying forward”—was to ensure others got the same help and care he had received.

He earned his M.A. in health care and business administration from Virginia Commonwealth University, and for more than than 30 years has served as a counselor and mentor for amputees and injured civilians.

More recently he has doing the same for brain-damaged and battle-scarred troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan—many of whom have served multiple deployments and have returned from them suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

To help them, Haneke cofounded Families of the Wounded, which reaches out to involve the entire family in the rehab process and supplies a package of physicians, nurses, therapists, counselors, and chaplains to care for patients at the McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond, Va.

For his work, the DAR presented him with the Veteran of the Year award in 2009. He was also appointed by the governor of Virginia to the board of Veterans Services. Previously, he received several medals including three bronze stars and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry for his service in Vietnam.

To continue with his own healing he wrote Trust Not, a book relating his military experiences, his close encounters with God, and the astonishing details of his recovery.

Now 70 and a retired captain; married for 14 years to his second wife, Karen; and with six children, 12 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren Haneke still makes hospital rounds providing inspiration and support.

“Hope is the factor they need to hear. They need to know the world has not come to an end because they have been severely wounded,” he says. “There is a large percentage who will be able to return to normal life, have a family, be employed, and be productive, functioning members of society.”

For today’s injured, Haneke observes, things have improved in many regards. “There are a lot more options available to vets in a more organized fashion than when I came through. Then it was more of a piecemeal type of health care. Things have really changed,” he says. ”Now everything is taken care of for you. You can get to see the doctors in a very timely manner, the medicines are appropriate, and you don’t have to wait forever for a prescription.”

In the war zone now, he continues, medivacs are more plentiful and far better equipped. “It’s the golden hour,’ he says. “With so many more head cases, quickness is the key to survival and a productive life” after a devastating injury.

Finally, Haneke points to the increase in women requiring traumatic care, which he notes is a “new phenomenon” that he hopes will lead to a healing approach that is more “holistic … treating the entire body instead of one specific area.”

The self styled “Army Post Chapel Christian” also talks about God and faith. “When you go through combat, there is no reasonable explanation of how you survive other than the fact you pray for guidance and protection, because they are the only things that bring you through.”

He adds: “I’ve seen a lot of hardcore people on a battlefield. When the bullets start flying, there are no atheists out there.”