"Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate,
anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite
as we see we aren't alone. We realize others weep with us."
~Susan Wittig Albert

Through our writing, we walk out of the darkness into the light
together, one small step at a time, recording history, educating
America, and we are healing.
~CJ/Todd Dierdorff

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dead Three Times

For the past 42 years, Vietnam veteran Gil Hernandez knew he had died twice.

“I think ‘why me, why was I the one to survive when so many died?’ I don’t understand and I guess I never will,” said Hernandez with tears in his eyes as he humbly shared his unique story of survival. He repeatedly said his is just one of many stories that could be told by those who have served in the armed forces.

Four weeks into his deployment on an infamous night on April 25, 1968, in the middle of a combat zone in Vietnam, his tank, which he and a fellow Marine were riding on top of, was hit by satchel charges and grenades. Hernandez was critically wounded in the back, both legs, his liver and his arm. He received a punctured lung, lost six inches of his small intestines, and he's pulled shrapnel from his skin for years following the attack.

For 42 years, Hernandez knew surgeons thought he was dead after the attack and revived him twice. However, this story was to become even more miraculous this year when he received a phone call on Sept. 1. A voice on the other end was Neil McCrossen, who told Hernandez he was to get in contact with a man named Charles “Graves” Roth.

The next day Hernandez received a call from Roth, who turned out to be the man who helped save his life not once, not twice — but three times. Hernandez never knew exactly what happened the day he was critically wounded, only that surgeons thought he was dead.  Roth, however, did remember. He also spent the next 42 years searching for Hernandez.

Every year, Roth headed to the wall with names of veterans he knew who died. He takes the list and crosses off the names of those he had once met or trained before going into combat. In a letter Roth wrote to Hernandez after they were reunited, he said he always wondered if “Hernandez”, was the name of the man he saw live. “I knew you got out of Dong Ha alive, but I never knew more than that. I never even knew your first name until last week. I often wondered if one of the Hernandezes on the wall was you. I finally have something positive about Vietnam to talk about. You made it brother, welcome home.”

Roth discovered who Hernandez was after reading an article in the VFW magazine about PTSD that contained his name. Roth then made contact. Following years of both men suffering from PTSD and not knowing the other’s fate, or even their names, the two Vietnam veterans met face to face in March in Washington, D.C.  Hernandez said when he met Roth, he let his emotions and tears fall freely.

Dead Three Times

After seeing years of combat, Roth worked in an area called Graves Registration, where fallen soldiers are ultimately taken and prepared to be sent home. The soldiers are first fingerprinted and then put in a body bag.
Roth and a fellow Marine tag-teamed the bodies; one would fingerprint the right, the other the left.

Following the attack on Hernandez’s tank, he was brought to Graves Registration. That's when Roth saw a twitch from the body to be fingerprinted next. “I twitched again and he came over and grabbed me.  Then Roth remembered being told that if you hit someone in the chest three times, you can revive them,” Hernandez said.

Three hits to the heart brought Hernandez back and Roth immediately sent him to a surgeon. Hernandez doesn't remember this. For years, he thought the first time he came to was when he was revived by a surgeon, Dr. James Finnegan. After Roth sent Hernandez to surgery, Finnegan pronounced Hernandez dead once again, sending him back to Graves Registration where Roth began hollering again, “this Marine is alive!”

Once more back to surgery, Finnegan called on a second surgeon who also pronounced Hernandez dead yet again. However, for fear of the Marines, they continued to work on Hernandez and they finally found a faint pulse. “So they actually pronounced me dead three times!” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said he's been asked what it was like being brought back to life. He remembers it feeling like a dream. He can remember the beginning and the end, but not the middle. He said he assumed he was awake the whole time, but as time passed, he learned differently.  He said he owes Roth and Finnegan his life, as well as the “hand of God.”


“The U.S. made a promise to us (veterans), and if they don’t want to support us, they have to stop creating more veterans,” Hernandez said.

Since he came back from Vietnam, following years of recovery and dealing with PTSD, he has dedicated his life to community service helping veterans of the United States and their families. He wants to make sure no veteran ever again faces the cruelty he and other returning veterans faced when they came home from Vietnam.  As a member of VFW Post 2350, Hernandez goes to Washington, D.C. each March to continue to lobby for veterans’ rights.

“I will do this until the day I die,” he said.

“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale

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