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The scars of war and the miracles they bring

by Judith Hruz


Wayne Miller was 18 years old on July 4, 1969, and he was dying.

The U.S. Marine and his unit were moving through the jungles of Vietnam.

“The enemy was nearby. One of our guys hit a booby trap that tipped off the other guys of where we were. They fired three mortars and AK47 rounds, and I got hit.”

Miller fell to the ground – at least his body fell to the ground. Some other part of him was looking down on his nearly lifeless body, watching the action below. Then he saw his family having a Fourth of July picnic.

“I saw them there. Everything about them. I did.”

Then Miller came crashing back to the ground at 100 mph. He opened his eyes and saw a helicopter land.

“I don’t remember much else. I was dying.”

A medical corpsman was tending to him. He thinks so, anyway. Little of what was happening stayed with him.

He woke up in a hospital in Da Nang.

“The doctor told me, ‘I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is you are alive. The bad news is we had to take your leg.’”

But he understood the good news was very good news. He should have died on the battlefield.


Returning home


When he returned to the States, he spent time at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Philadelphia. With his family around his bedside, he recalled the one solid memory he had of that fateful July 4 in the jungles of Vietnam: The vision of his family sitting on a picnic blanket enjoying the Independence Day holiday.

He asked them what they were doing that day.

His mother described his vision exactly.

That cemented what he already knew and what countless people have told him for five decades: He should have died that day. Had it not been for the nameless, faceless corpsman who tended to him, despite the bombs falling around them, he would be dead.

In Philadelphia, he was fitted for his first prosthesis.

Somewhere along the path of recovery, he decided that the leg would not limit him.

People told him it would. But he was alive – alive against all odds – and he took the challenge of a prosthetic leg as the impetus to propel him forward. With the help of the Veterans Administration (VA), he attended college and earned several master’s degrees. He has a wife, children and grandchildren. Through his own sheer will and determination, he has earned medals in VA sports. He sings, even recording a song.

He has dedicated his life to serving other veterans, now counseling veterans at the Veterans Center in Montgomery County and serving as chair of the Montgomery County Commission on Veterans Affairs.


Thousands of miles away


On the other side of the country, James “Jim” Renza was living a different life.

After he returned from service in Vietnam just after Christmas 1969, the Marine corpsman lacked direction.

“I was bouncing from here to there.”

The VA offered to send him to medical school because of his corpsman training, but that did not appeal to him, perhaps because of all the horrors he saw in those jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam.

He was “the old man” in those battles – 20 years old in the summer of 1969 — when he was patching up and piecing together the battlefield casualties.

In one particular battle on July 4, he remembers digging shrapnel from his own body as he pushed forward to get to other injured men.

Eventually, he went to divinity school and became a bishop in his non-denominational religion. He ended up moving to the East Coast and working for the Smithsonian.


Slowly withdrawing


Renza was slowly, but surely, withdrawing. And then the coronavirus pandemic hit and that “allowed” him to pull away from people even further. No one was going anywhere, and he used that as an excuse to go deeper inside his own head.

He never sought help for the confusion he felt for 50 years. How could he explain it to someone else when he hardly understood it himself?

Renza could never reconcile the work he did as a corpsman.

“Did I save anyone? Did I screw up anyone’s life? I carried a lot of baggage.”

Finally, someone recommended that he go to the Veterans Center and talk to Miller.

“Go see Wayne. Go see Wayne. Go see Wayne,” he was told.

Eventually, he did.


The answers they needed


As he sat facing Miller, Renza recounted his stories of hell. In particular was a story from a horrific battle on July 4, 1969.

Miller was shocked. He thought someone had put Renza up to some sort of horrible joke. No one could know the details of that day unless they knew Miller, and heard him talk about it.

Miller didn’t even know the details from that day.

The person sitting across from him in his office in Forest Glen – seemingly a million miles from Southeast Asia – was telling Miller’s story of being shot up in the jungles of Vietnam, how he was “rescued” and put on a helicopter as war raged around them.

Miller never knew Renza’s name. All corpsmen are just “Doc.” You don’t ask names on the battlefield. That way, if someone dies, it is less personal.

So, Miller never knew, nor did Renza, the name of the man in whose life he became forever entwined on July 4, 1969.

But Miller looked at Renza, straight in the eyes and said: “You had to be there.”

“You saved my life.”

Call it coincidence.

Call it a miracle.

Call it the universe and it’s infinite wisdom in knowing what to do.

From that moment on, those two men had the validation they had been seeking for over a half century.

“I was his validation and he was my validation,” Renza said.

For Miller, he always believed in the “Band of Brothers” mentality – leaving no one behind.

And Renza believed it, too. He just didn’t know how deeply he believed it.

“He gave me back part of me that I was throwing away,” he said of Miller.

In a jungle battleground on July 4, 1969, Jim Renza saved Wayne Miller’s life. In an office in Montgomery County 50 years later, Wayne Mil

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