MTS Voices: "Combat Zone - Comfort Zone" by Dan Higgins

MTS Voices
Highlighting the diversity of experiences that make up our community.

As we near Veterans Day, we asked MTS parent, Dan Higgins, to reflect on his experience in the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Dan served in the U.S. Army, leading night combat teams in Vietnam’s central highlands, earning 3 Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with “V” for valor.

1970, Central Highlands of South Vietnam, Binh Dinh Province

Combat Zone - Comfort Zone

As the helicopter lifted off, I knew I’d never be going back.

My face rubbing against the coarse canvas of the stretcher. A hurricane of jungle debris and dirt whips through the open side door. Sandpaper on our wounds. It was crazy to try to extract us in the near dark on this mountainside. 

The trick is to get out fast. In the rush to depart, it feels like the helicopter is going to shake apart as it struggles to pull itself into the air. All of us holding our breath. Waiting for the bullets to tear at the thin sides of this scruffy old bird.

Finally we’re rising above the jungle canopy and turning out of the mountains. Now I can feel the soft twilight air. See the moon rising on the rim of the South China Sea.

A moment for reflection. This chapter is over. No more nighttime patrols, trying to sleep in the sweltering days, eating stale food out of green cans with sand in my teeth. As we float above the darkening rice patties, I feel relief. Also sadness for parting from a life that I at least knew.

That night an Army surgeon saved my legs. From a purely clinical perspective, he should have amputated both. But he didn’t. We were friends. I had been to the big Army medical evacuation hospital in Qui Nhon on two previous occasions. Our friendship started when I let his nurses practice stitches on several gunshot wounds. I didn’t reflect then, but the lesson was, be kind to everyone. You never know who will help you, why, or when.

Scrolling forward, I would awake from multiple surgeries with my feet still appearing at the far end of the bed. Go on to Army hospitals in Japan and Texas. It seemed like ages, laying in WWII era wards the size of gymnasiums. Among rows of young men turned old. We were brothers, woven in a multi-racial fabric only we understood. We knew we were lucky to have survived. What we didn’t fully know was how we were about to re-enter a society that would reject us. Nor how those wounds might be deeper.

For awhile I had a bed in the hospital at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio where I could look out a window at the tennis courts. It made me want to play tennis. To be normal. Yet, even to stand, seemed a bridge too far. 

The Major in charge of therapy put it bluntly, “You’ll never walk again, Sargent Higgins.”

But I did. There was too much to live for. Now I’ve summited Sierra peaks, careened on single tracks down Mt. Tam, driven a race car in national competition, walked confidently across courtrooms and boardrooms. 

An orthopedist at Stanford told me several years ago after an exam, “I don’t know how you do it [walking], but just keep doing it.” 

It seems good advice in a broader context as well. As the Nike ad urges: ‘Just do it.’

People will say, “What a terrible experience.” 

It was. It wasn’t. In the end it left me with so much more. With a vivid life experience. It’s most certainly not an advertisement for war, or even for military service. Maybe more for venturing outside a linear trajectory. For being knocked down and challenged to get up. For being made to see beyond self interest.

My detour - because it was difficult, and different, and imprinted with risk - was ultimately a gift. It begs a question about life’s journey. About comfort zone.

Don’t we humans become more empowered, more empathetic, more whole, when we genuinely know some territory outside our safe places?

I didn’t know how I would feel about going back to Vietnam. I might again breathe that soft twilight air, or it might reignite nightmares. A few years ago, we did go as a family. I walked some of the same paths through the rice patties with my daughters, feeling grateful to complete the circle with them - in that place beyond the comfort zone.

Dan Higgins
October 2021

2016, Dan Higgin's daughters walking on a remote patty trail in Central Vietnam on a visit where Dan was located during the war


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