Double Amputee Completes Cross-Country Odyessy
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Bob Wieland, a legless Vietnam veteran, ended his 2,784-mile ″Walk for Hunger″ across the United States Wednesday as he began it - on his hands.
When he arrived in the nation’s capital, Wieland met with President Reagan at the White House - a session the veteran said brought tears to the president’s eyes - and was greeted at the Capitol by House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill.
O’Neill, D-Mass., called Wieland ″a man of great courage and fortitude and stamina.″
On a downtown streetcorner, the veteran strapped his torso into a thick leather seat and slipped his heavily-calloused hands into the pads he calls his ″running shoes.″
Swinging forward on two powerfully muscled arms, he took a ″step″ of three feet, rested momentarily on his buttocks and reached forward for another step in the last mile of a 3 1/2 -year, 4.9 million-step journey.
Surrounded by reporters and photographers, he reached the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial at a normal walking pace. He swung down the path along the memorial’s black granite walls and found the name of Jerome D. Lubeno, the man he was trying to save when he lost his legs.
Wieland, 40, was a combat medic with the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division. On June 14, 1969, attempting to aid Lubeno, who had stepped on a booby trap, Wiland himself tripped over an 82mm mortar round.
″My legs went one way and I went another,″ he said.
After surgery, 50 pints of blood and a bout with malaria, Wieland weighed 87 pounds. He had once stood 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. Nine-inches remained of his right leg, five inches of his left.
He began his rehabilitation program unable to lift five pounds and culminated it in 1977 by bench pressing 303 pounds. He earned degrees in physical education and recreation and served on the faculty of the California State University at Los Angeles.
In 1981, now a born-again Christian, he decided to make the trip, inspired by a verse from the Book of Romans, ″We then that are strong, ought to bear the infirmities of the weak.″
After training for 18 months, he set out on Sept. 8, 1982 from Knott’s Berry Farm, Calif.
At a rate of three to five miles a day, he crossed California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland. He spent his nights in the homes of volunteer sponsors.
The worst times came in the Arizona desert in the summer of 1983 when the reflective heat from the asphalt soared above 100 degrees, he said.
″There were many times I didn’t think he’d make it through that desert,″ said his father, Bill Wieland, a Milwaukee real estate broker. ″But, he encouraged you.″
His father recalls that his son as a youngster was ″always very positive. He had goals and he worked to obtain them.″ His goal from the age of three was baseball. A high school star, young Wieland played semi-pro ball and was negotiating with the Philadelphia Phillies when he was drafted.
In Vietnam, Wieland said he was first impressed with the pain of hunger when village women would approach him, seeking medicine for their babies.
″As I held these babies in my arms, I noticed something drastically different. They were starving and hungry. They had disease and infection,″ he said. ″I brought some of those memories back to America with me.″
He hopes to raise $25 million, to be distributed to organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, by persuading people to sponsor each of his steps for $5 each. So far, he’s raised $305,000.
Accompanying him on the last mile in Washington, along with his parents, was Dennis Cooper of Miller, Mo., who retrieved Wieland’s broken body and loaded it on a helicopter; James Sylvester of Seattle, Wash., Wieland’s platoon lieutenant; and another member of the platoon, David DeNayer of Hume, Mo.
Sylvester had not seen Wieland since he was evacuated on the helicopter. Cooper, who had driven to Highway 96 near Joplin, Mo., to see the legless veteran crossing the country, did not recall Wieland except as ‘Doc.’ It was only after returning home and looking at pictures of the men in his unit that he connected Wieland to the man he had put aboard the chopper.
He drove bac to Wieland on the road. ″Doc - you’re still alive,″ he said.
In March, with the journey nearly finished, Wieland was appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.
Donations may be sent to Spirit of America - Walk for Hunger, Box 2686, Laguna Hills, CA. 92563