Saving Corporal Wantland

Soldiers are taught never to surrender, so giving God control was my most brutal battle.

By Del Wantland with Joyce K. Ellis

It was Sept. 15, 1967. As my platoon awaited orders to take the An Lao valley in Vietnam, the night air weighed heavy with tension.

After only four months in Vietnam, I had already seen numerous ambushes. The scene at one post-ambush clean-up operation still haunted me: a teen-age girl’s slain body lying on the side of the trail, almost peaceful. Why she had been out that night I would never know. Yet I couldn’t shake the anguishing thought of my bullet killing an innocent bystander.

The night before the An Lao operation, one of my fellow soldiers shot himself in the foot with his own gun–a free ticket out of combat. His fear was justified.

The attack happened so quickly, we didn’t know what was happening. Sniper fire rained down from the trees above. Crossfire sailed from thick foliage along the trail. The first two men in our single-file patrol were killed instantly. I was waking up in a field hospital to discover that two weeks of my life had vanished. Suddenly, the awful truth came to me: I couldn’t move anything.

The sniper’s bullet had shattered my collarbone, ripped through my spinal cord, and lodged in my right shoulder. I didn’t remember the ambush. The horrible details were related to me later by a surviving platoon-mate.

My wounds brought excruciating pain. After transfer to an Army hospital in Japan, I underwent an emergency tracheotomy. Painkillers blurred the days. I was barely able to talk or think. Mortal combat now meant fighting to stay alive.

Two-and-a-half months after the attack, I was shipped home to California. My wife finally got her first glimpse of her mangled husband. She tried to be brave, but I could tell she was shaken.

At a VA hospital in Long Beach, I convalesced and got my first taste of the strong anti-war sentiments in the U.S. These attitudes were devastating. We had gone to fight for our country, yet it was ungrateful and not at all aware of our sacrifice.

After six months, I started physical therapy. As a quadriplegic, I was limited. But I wanted to live as normal a life as possible.

As my body strengthened, however, my marriage crumbled. I drank a lot, trying to cope with the pain. But my wife couldn’t take it any longer, and we soon divorced.

I tried to start a new life, but without any real goals I slipped into deep depression. Alcohol and drugs dominated my life. I felt trapped. I didn’t want to kill myself because my late dad had been a minister, and I knew my mom was still praying for me. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to live.

In the summer of 1972, I was tripping on LSD along with my roommate. Suddenly, my mind took me on a horrific ride: my roommate seemed to turn into Satan–not a red-suited guy with a pitchfork and horns but an immense, evil presence.

It was a wake-up call. I had strayed far from the faith my parents had tried to raise me with. But I knew I had to do something, and I knew that Jesus was the only answer.

I visited my mom. She knew how messed up I was, yet she listened and then helped me understand that God loved me no matter what.

Military men are taught never to surrender, so the idea of giving God control is hard for us. But as I listened to the Bible’s prescription for overcoming the power of sin, I knew exactly what I had to do–confess my helplessness and surrender control of my life to Jesus.

I started attending a nearby church. My need for drugs was gradually replaced by an insatiable desire to read the Bible, which changed my perception of everything. There was a saying in Vietnam: "It ain’t nothing." And that’s how it was. In war’s cheapening of life, nothing had much value. But from the Bible, I realized everyone has worth–including myself.

Five years later, God gave me a new family: I married Sue, a beautiful woman in my church, and we soon adopted two wonderful children.

Today, from my new home in Michigan, I am president of Point Man International Ministries, an outreach to veterans. Now, I’m able to reach out to hurting vets and give them a chance to find healing, hope and freedom through Christ.

Reprinted by permission, New Man Magazine.