When Ryan crashed into Vietnamese soil on March 10, 1967, the impact broke his back with lasting results.
Bill Ryan arrived in Vietnam in 1966. He served as the radio operator for a mechanized infantry company until he broke his back in March of 1967.
After being drafted, Ryan served as a radio and telephone operator in a mechanized infantry company, arriving in Vietnam before Christmas in 1966. His unit formed part of a perimeter for the Howitzers of an artillery detachment.
In March 1967, the artillery was being shifted to a new position near the Cambodian border, from which they could shell enemy units seeking refuge over the border. The guns were lifted by helicopter to a new perimeter, but the mechanized infantry drove.
Ryan's company was the last to leave. "The Vietnamese must have been watching," explained Ryan, "because they got in and mined a fresh trail an hour after our last company left."
"Most of the unit I was in was wiped out," continued Ryan, who was 19 at the time.
That's why Ryan considers himself lucky. "Oh my God," he says quickly, "Yes."
Because he had to give reports every 15 minutes, Ryan was sitting on the back of an armored personnel carrier, as reception inside the metal vehicle prevented transmissions.
That was his first lucky break. When the tank rolled over the mine, those inside were trapped.
His next lucky break was the presence of another soldier on the back of the carrier. When the mine exploded, that soldier shielded Ryan from the blast's shrapnel.
That soldier survived, too. "Out of our track, we were the only ones who made it," said Ryan.
He didn't need a shield for long, as the explosion launched him skyward. "All of a sudden, I felt the impact of something, my head jerked down, and in an instant I'm looking at the tops of the trees," he recalled.
After he landed, and broke his back, Ryan's fighting days in Vietnam ended, and his fight for recovery began.
Ryan underwent his first surgery in Saigon to remove bone fragments pressed up against his spinal cord. It turned out that in the rush to do the surgery they failed to get all the debris, but Ryan holds no grudges. Soldiers were waiting shoulder to shoulder in gurneys for surgery, and haste was employed only to save lives.
Ryan was transferred to the Great Lakes Naval Hospital, near Chicago and near his Illinois hometown. While there, feeling returned to his extremities, he started to wiggle his toes, and committed himself to walk again through hard work and determination.
But he had secret pains. "I just wanted to go home, and I wasn't going to say anything, but every time I went from standing to sitting it was like someone stuck an ice pick in my back," he explained.
He was supposed to go home on Friday, but when a doctor discovered the pain, surgery was scheduled for the next Monday.
In this second surgery, they removed more bone fragments. Then they took match-stick-sized pieces of bone from his hip and placed them along the spine to fuse it. Ryan spent four months in a body cast from his chest to his knees to immobilize his back as the new pieces of bone grew to fuse two vertebrate.
Becoming a teacher
With his recovery, Ryan spent three years in the army, rather than the standard two years of a draftee.
When he got out, though, he found his life had been permanently altered. Not just being careful getting out of bed or tying your shoes or even turning to look behind you when backing a vehicle, but his livelihood.
"You think about it," Ryan said of his back. "Before you lift it. Before you twist it."
Bill Ryan, shown left, has taught at Paynesville Area High School for 23 years. He has had three surgeries on his back since 1967. His latest one was a year ago.
Prior to his service, Ryan was an apprentice sheet metal worker, which was a good paying job in those days. Doing duct work and hustling furnaces down stairs wasn't an option for Ryan when he finished his military service.
"I couldn't get a job," he explained. "Who wants to hire a guy with a broken back? I couldn't get a job and couldn't get a job."
He even had to fight to use his G.I. Bill and head to college. To start, he needed a letter from a friend who was a school principal saying that he could be hired as a teacher with a bad back.
After attending college in Illinois, Ryan took a job as an agriculture and shop teacher at Paynesville Area High School. He has taught here for 23 years and raised a family of three kids Ð Josh, Sarah, and Adam Ð with his wife, Pat.
Ryan likes to fish and hunt, play golf, work on his hobby farm, and relax. He found himself doing more of the latter than normal though as his back continued to give him trouble.
Ryan learned to live with limited mobility, numbness in his legs and feet, and pain. When you can't feel the bottom of your feet, you have to use your other senses to spot loose gravel and walk carefully.
A year ago, Ryan underwent his third back surgery. Doctors did a spinal decompression on the two vertebrate below his fusion, which were pressing against his spinal cord. These vertebrate were realigned to relieve pressure on the spinal cord.
"When I woke up after the surgery, whew, you knew they had done something right," Ryan said.
He used 120 days of sick leave to recuperate at home, returning only for the last 12 days of school. This year, he's back teaching full time and reports no pain. He's trying to do more, and his instructions from doctors allow him to do anything with which he's comfortable.
His only complaint is the failure of the Veteran's Administration to pay for his latest surgery, despite his doctor's assurance that it was caused by his war injury.
A day to remember
Veteran's Day is a special day of reflection for Ryan, remembering his Army buddies. "You think about the ones that you had a box of C-rations with in the morning, but they weren't there for dinner," he explained.
"Veteran's Day is a sad day for those who have gone, but it's a happy day, too. Job accomplished," said Ryan.
Having survived, he considers himself lucky.
Ryan supports U.S. intervention abroad. He supports the use of our military force to protect freedom. Not to do so, he likens it to idly witnessing a crime on the street. "I would put a uniform on again in a minute," he said.
Ryan believes protecting the people of South Vietnam from Communism was right. He fondly remembers the grandeur of the rubber plantations and the kids who would come round at meal times and beg with their eyes.
"These people wanted freedom, just like I would want if someone were trying to take it away from me," he explained.
As a matter of fact, Ryan's feeling of freedom, his patriotism, hit a dramatic peak upon his return to the United States. Still paralyzed, as his flight landed in California, he remembers the thrill of hearing the pilot announce their arrival onto American soil. "Boy, what a feeling of security," he said.
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