A Surgeon Saved a Solider from the Brink of Death—Why He Spent 23 Years Wondering If the Rescue Was a “Mistake”
A surgeon who saved the life of a shattered, blinded soldier long wondered, Did I do the wrong thing? Two decades later, the two meet again and the doctor learns the life-changing truth.
In the late afternoon of September 21, 1968, the crew of an Army Huey helicopter with the call sign Ghostrider 281 began a perilous descent into jungle terrain to assist a chopper shot down by the North Vietnamese.
Leaning out of Ghostrider 281 as far as possible, 19-year-old door gunner Kenneth McGarity was helping direct the pilot when an enemy rocket struck the Huey. McGarity took the brunt of the explosion. The pilot was able to crash-land. McGarity was picked up and flown to the Army’s 71st Evacuation Hospital.
“Oh, God! I hurt so bad,” McGarity cried over and over as he was brought in on a stretcher.
The young soldier was covered in mud, with one leg hanging by a thin strip of skin and the other mangled almost as badly. His arms were broken, a finger was missing, and he was bleeding from his left eye.
The surgeon on call, Dr. Kenneth Swan, 33, had arrived in Vietnam only a month before. “I couldn’t believe the man was still alive,” Dr. Swan later wrote. “I didn’t want him to be alive.” Still, the surgeon in him told him what he must do.
Fortunately, Dr. Swan had the time and resources to give the wounded soldier his full attention that night. He was the only serious new casualty brought in.
Dr. Swan directed the surgical team and amputated one of the soldier’s fingers and both legs from the thigh down. A neurosurgeon cut through the skull to treat massive head injuries caused when a metal fragment pierced McGarity’s left eye and entered his brain. As a urologist worked on extensive wounds in the groin area, two orthopedic surgeons set both arms in plaster. An ophthalmologist was unable to save either eye. The operations took eight hours.
The next day, Dr. Swan’s medical supervisor pulled him aside and told him that other surgeons had questioned the wisdom of saving a man who would have so little to live for. Dr. Swan’s action had been a horrible mistake, they said. Maybe I did the wrong thing, he thought.
When he learned weeks later that the badly maimed soldier had survived and been flown back to the States, he was again plagued by self-doubt. What kind of life have I created for this man? he wondered. A living hell?
Back home, McGarity underwent additional eye and arm surgeries and further amputations to his legs. In such excruciating pain that he was on round-the-clock shots of morphine, he eventually became addicted. Visits from his parents and friends hurt just as much as they soothed. Though he couldn’t see, McGarity sensed their discomfort. It was clear that his former life was gone forever.
Then, six months into his convalescence, McGarity reached a turning point. One night a soldier who’d lost a leg asked him jokingly whether he’d go and fetch them something to eat. McGarity had so little strength that he could barely sit up; he couldn’t see to navigate his wheelchair through the hallways, let alone find the military hospital’s PX. But by feeling his way along, by asking people for directions, he somehow managed. And after he got back to the ward, with a bag full of candy bars and crackers, Kenneth McGarity realized that there was hope. He finally said to himself, I’m gonna make it.
During the next six months, he underwent intensive rehabilitation and kicked his morphine addiction. Gradually he learned to feed himself, shave, get dressed, and bathe without assistance. In October 1969—13 months after he’d been injured—he checked out of the hospital, determined to rebuild his life.
McGarity settled in Phenix City, Alabama, where his parents lived. He was financially secure with veteran benefits. His all-consuming interest was a new CB radio, and in July 1971, he was introduced at a CBers’ picnic to a young woman with a sweet voice. Her name was Theresa Leveret.
Theresa, 19, had finished her first year of college. Although she was shy, she had no trouble opening up to this charming veteran with the easy laugh. She didn’t give his disability a lot of thought: Theresa’s grandmother had been blind, and a friend with cerebral palsy was in a wheelchair. Soon she and McGarity fell in love, and by November, they were married.
Doctors told the newlyweds that because of McGarity’s injuries they most likely would never have children. But just two years later, they were overjoyed to learn that Theresa was expecting.
Alicia was born in 1973, followed by Elizabeth in 1980. “If there were times in my life when I wished I had eyes again,” McGarity says, “it was there in the delivery room, holding those newborn babies in my arms.”
There were harsher realities too. Though McGarity had done a remarkable job of overcoming his physical handicaps, Vietnam had taken a devastating toll on his psyche. Every time a jet flew overhead, he would dive to the floor in panic. In the autumn, he would experience severe depressions that lasted for weeks. He endured terrifying nightmares, flashbacks, and mood swings. The fallout was felt by the whole family. “A day never went by that we didn’t discuss Vietnam,” Theresa says. At times she wondered whether they would ever put the war behind them.
Dr. Kenneth Swan, who went on to become a professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, thought of McGarity often immediately after the war. But over the years, he managed to repress the memory of the soldier he’d rescued from death. Then, one day in 1989, Peter MacPherson, a journalist, asked him, “Do you ever make mistakes?” The question brought it all back. When Dr. Swan tried once to discuss McGarity at a medical symposium and got choked up, he knew he could no longer ignore the soldier’s fate.
“I didn’t think I’d like what I’d find,” he says. In fact, he felt there was a good chance that McGarity had died. But he had to know. “I had to face up to what I had avoided for 20 years. I had to find out if my decision had been the right one and, if it wasn’t, what it had cost McGarity. I had to learn the truth.”
Locating McGarity seemed nearly impossible, however. Dr. Swan remembered many details about the soldier, but not his last name. With more than 300,000 wounded Vietnam veterans listed in the Pentagon’s archives, tracking down one soldier without knowing his surname proved an awesome task. It took two years of searching before Dr. Swan and MacPherson, with the help of the military, located McGarity.
In April 1991, the military wrote to McGarity about Dr. Swan’s request. Theresa read the letter to her husband, who was thrilled. “I knew there was a doctor somewhere who had saved my life,” he says. “I’d always wished I could meet and thank him.”
Dr. Swan was astounded when he heard about his patient. “I was told, ‘He’s married, has two children, enjoys scuba diving, and has taken college classes!’” he recalls. “I said, ‘You’ve got the wrong man. My patient has no legs, no eyes, badly damaged arms, and had head trauma.’” The Army insisted it had the right person.
Dr. Swan and McGarity spoke several times by phone before deciding to meet. Then, in September 1991—23 years and four days after the battle that nearly took McGarity’s life—doctor and patient reunited at McGarity’s home in Columbus, Georgia. During a five-hour visit, Dr. Swan talked about that night in Vietnam and his doubts about saving McGarity. “Even in my darkest moments of pain,” McGarity told him, “there was never a time I wanted to die.”
McGarity peppered the doctor with questions, hoping to fill in the holes in his memory. “I needed to find out the facts,” he says. “I wanted to know how close to death I was.”
The details seemed to help McGarity get beyond his past. The flashbacks and nightmares declined dramatically. Theresa had hoped for that for years.
Dr. Swan was also moved. He called the meeting “the most dramatic event in my career.” He was astonished to learn that McGarity played piano and trumpet, did indeed scuba dive, and had completed a year of college. The doctor refused, though, to take much credit for the way things turned out. “The older you get,” he says, “the more you realize how little doctors contribute to patient outcome. The miracles of modern medicine usually are not man-made. Doctors are 5 percent. God and the patient are the rest.”
On January 30, 1992, Kenneth McGarity was awarded medals for heroism that, because of a mix-up, he had never received. In an emotional ceremony at Fort Benning, Georgia, before 30 relatives and friends—and Dr. Swan—McGarity was presented with a Purple Heart, an Air Medal, and four other awards. It was a fitting tribute to a man who’d spent every day of the 23 years since his injuries overcoming adversity with courage and valor.
However, McGarity does not consider his achievement exceptional. “It was my job—I volunteered to do it. I believed in my country then, and I believe in my country now.”
Pvt. McGarity and Dr. Swan continued to be in touch via Christmas cards and notes. When McGarity died in 2007, the Swans sent flowers to the funeral. Dr. Swan died in 2014, and his wife, Betsy, says that he forever cherished meeting McGarity after the war. She shared a story her husband had written about his experience in which he said, in part: “What I had said the morning after Ken’s surgery was true: ‘I was trained to care for the sick and wounded and God will decide who lives or dies.’ But the day of our reunion I knew it was true in the depths of my being. God can work miracles in the most desolate of circumstances for those who, like Ken McGarity, have courage and faith.”