The second time Joseph White, 35, was injured in Vietnam was the worst. On Christmas Eve, 1969, he was ambushed, "on my way to Camp Eagle to see Bob Hope," and struck by automatic weapons fire once in the head, twice in the left arm, once in the right ring finger, five times in each leg and five times in the stomach. "It blew my bowels all to pieces," he says. "When I woke up it was another year."
But just as hard to survive, says the 35-year-old former Marine sniper from Baltimore, was the bizarre character of the Vietnam War itself -- "the big taint," as White says it was known: "T'aint reality, and t'aint a dream."
"The guys who were over there scared you as much as the enemy when you first arrived," he said. "Everybody wore sunglasses and talked funny . . . There was a different slang . . . a different language.They were weird. Later I became weird. It was a matter of survival."
The most unnerving aspect, White remembers, was the sudden realization that the entire war was "just a bunch of kids . . . like a huge high school for boys [with] officers just broke 21 . . ."
Survivial is Vietnam, White says, was determined by "how well you learned the first lesson you ever got: how well you paid attention . . . You had to live by the gut feeling that danger was near . . . to bring out the animal in you and hide the human."
But in the aftermath, during years of struggle and pain that made him once again a whole man, it is the humanity that White has drawn on -- not only to survive but to prevail. Now, he says, he tells his 16-year-old daughter "when she feels down, to redirect that attitude and pick herself up. Life is just a process of solving problems and when you stop solving, then your problems grow problems. It's not over until you close your eyes for good."
White almost did, but as he was airlifted out of Vietnam, he says, "I knew I couldn't die over there.I didn't know anybody over there. I knew I had to die in my own home town," with friends and family around who "don't just remember me with a rifle in my hand."