Oct 12, 2012
In 1966, Jim Miner traded his guitar for a rifle and went to Vietnam. A mortar explosion took his right arm, pulling him away from his passion of playing music. This is his story:
limb-loss.org: Tell me about your life as a teenager, what led you to Vietnam and your amputation…
As a teenager, it was all about the music; it was my passion. And although I also enjoyed photography and astronomy, I put them on the back burner to pursue my career in music. Over an eight year period, I was the lead guitarist in a five man band, playing at parties, City College, and ” Battle of the Bands.” Hell, we even played at some West Sac bars– illegally, of course! My dream of being a Rock ‘n Roll star faded. By the time I was nineteen: I was in my third “Senior” year of high school, my music wasn’t going anywhere. Worst of all, I knew I was disappointing my parents (even though they never said anything). So, in March of ’66 I dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Army. I traded my guitar for a rifle.
I went from boot camp at Fort Ord then on to Advanced Artillery training, then to Jump School at Fort Benning, GA then to Advanced Infantry training at Fort Rucker, AL, then to permanent duty station at Fort Benning. Four months later I was in Vietnam.
Jim Miner: What type of music did you play?
Rock and Roll! We could earn $10 a gig. Back then that was enough money to cover gas and have some fun. I dabbled a bit with classical guitar, which required 5 fingers to strum.
So you went from being a teenager in high school at a very young age, to the thicket of Vietnam within a very short time…
Yeah, it was quite a change.
How old were you that year?
Can you describe the incident?
Yeah, I was wounded by an 82mm mortar along with my Sergeant, who was standing almost directly behind me. It killed Danny instantly and got me in the the back of both arms, legs and torso and my back. It knocked me a little ways. The adrenaline was rushing through me so much that I had crawled somewhere around 15 feet to a bunker. There were two other guys down there and I kind of fell into their arms. I wasn’t saying much at that point. One guy freaked out and said he had to get out of there because I was bleeding quite a bit. Another guy was hollering for a Medic and inside my mind I’m thinking, and I quietly said, “Oh, God, please don’t let me die.” About five minutes had passed by and at that point I knew I was losing my life. Despite being hit so many times, I did not feel a lot of pain in the wounds themselves, but I did feel the warmth in the abdominal area because I was bleeding internally.
The cook, of all people, pulled me out of the bunker and by then a couple of other guys had come over. They were looking at me, lying on the ground. My eyes were closed and I was kind of in-and-out by then from shock. The cook had said plain as day, “Well, he’s dead.” My thought, because I heard that, was, “I beg to differ with you.” I couldn’t talk because I had a serious chest wound as well. I opened my eyes to let ‘em know, “Don’t bury me yet.” There just happened to be a UH-4 nearby, better known as a Huey Helicopter. He landed and took me aboard with four other wounded soldiers. I was flat down and the last thing I remember before I passed out was seeing the helicopter pilot’s hand on the controls. I didn’t wake for three days.
The mortar didn’t blow the actual arm off, but it did mangle the brachial artery, tendons and muscles, which the doctors tried to save. Over a three week period there were four more surgeries where the surgeons tried to remove as much shrapnel as possible, especially from my abdominal cavity. I had 22 shrapnel surgery sites.
22 other places?
Yes, 22 significant other places, and that doesn’t count the sand pebbles and BB sized shrapnel– significant being at least 1/4”, ranging up to 2” being the largest of the mortar fragments.
What do you remember when you woke up?
When I woke up, there was one thing I was a little concerned about– that I was still a man. I asked the nurse to come over and lift the sheets up so I could see, you know, to see if I were okay. I was fine and we kind of had a little snicker about it. But I looked over to my right, and the arm was gone. I said to the guy next to me, “My arm’s gone.” He looked at me he goes, “No shit.” I just kind of blacked out again, went to sleep.
The next thing I know I woke up in the hospital ward (it is like a MASH unit, similar to the one on TV). I was completely wrapped from my head to my feet. I couldn’t see any skin. There were was a tube running to my right lung, a tube to the groin. a tube in my stomach and two tie downs–IV’s in both ankles because there were no other areas on my body to place them. I was there at the Evac hospital from Dec. 3rd to Dec. 23rd. Bob Hope and– I think it was Raquel Welch– were supposed to be flying in the next day, but much to my disappointment, they flew me out of there to Japan where I spent a few more weeks in the hospital. I just missed the Tet Offensive of ’68.
During my time in Japan, my right arm wasn’t closed all the way because the skin grafts didn’t take, so they operated on Dec. 24th to try to close the arm. I was still really feeling the effects of the anesthesia, but I remember waking up on Christmas Day to Santa Claus, Red Cross workers and Christmas Trees scattered about the ward.
At what point did this change, meaning, the reality of the situation set in and you began to shift the focus of your thoughts to your future?
That’s a good question. I would say 7-10 days of being fully awake. It’s my understanding that when you go through something traumatic like this, at first you’re in survival mode, your mind focuses on the very primal elements of your situation.
At this point, what sorts of questions did you begin to ask yourself?
“Will I be able to play my guitar again”? I knew there were prostheses out there that were pretty cool, even back then. At the same time, I was also very concerned with what was going on in the war because there were between 20-25 other guys in the ward with me. I guess you could say that there was so much quiet agony going on in the ward and deafening misery in the field that in the midst of all of our suffering, we desperately didn’t want our efforts in the war to be in vain. In some ways the hospital was as vivid and devastating as the combat.
In the bed to the right of me was a Sgt who took a bullet to the chest; he was begging me for water and because of the nature of his wound, he couldn’t have it. I’ll never forget him reaching over at me from the bed, asking if I could help him, and I knew that I couldn’t. At the time, I was only getting water from a cotton ball because of my abdominal wounds. The Sgt. didn’t make it; he started breathing hard one time and before I knew it, there were nurses and staff all around him, one nurse on top of him giving him CPR and then stabbing him in the heart with a syringe—one more lost life, one more reminder to the reality of war.
Little did I know that someone was writing a story about the passing of the Sergeant next to me. His name was Horst Faas, a journalist working for AP who was wounded himself and recovering in the ward. Within his story, I was described as the red-headed, freckle-faced onlooker from the First Infantry Division, crying into his pillow. My parents read the story. (They read all the articles coming back from Vietnam and at that time and they were unaware I had been wounded.) Mr. Faas had received a letter from my parents asking if it were me, and he wrote back confirming their suspicions.
What happened next?
They flew me home from Japan on January 8th into Travis AFB, California. This was the first time I was able to see my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law. They were all there. There were a lot of tears and happiness, you know– I made it. There’s a song, “It’s a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong. Well, it happened to be playing when my brother Joe walked in to see me for the first time. To this day, when that song plays–well, let’s just say it gets emotional for my brother and me.
From Travis, by helicopter, I was flown over to Letterman General at the Presidio in San Francisco. More surgeries followed. I was unable to feed myself. One arm was gone and the other was healing from all the shrapnel.
When you were at Letterman General, was it explained to you how the rehab process worked? How was it communicated that you would be receiving prosthesis?
In hindsight, if it were explained to me, I probably wasn’t paying attention. I just took it as it came. That’s all I could do because I was still in another ward with other guys recovering and I was just so visually locked into that, that I wasn’t really thinking about what was going to happen to me. There was always somebody that was worse off.
I was recovering in the hospital for almost a year because the skin grafts still wouldn’t take. They finally did a particular type of graft (pedicle) where they sewed the arm to the stomach and put me in a body cast for six weeks. The graft took with the exception of a 2” x 1” portion The doctors said they might have to do a revision on the arm, in fact, one time during grand rounds the doctors had drawn a purple line on my arm, indicating how much more of my arm they would amputate. But I refused. I wanted to save my elbow and 3″ of my forearm.
At that point, I basically just walked out because I was frustrated, not knowing what was going to happen. That’s mentally where I was most of the time.
During this portion of my rehab, I also couldn’t use my left hand because I had sustained 5 hits there too, causing nerve damage and a loss of strength. I had to be hand fed. I remember they told me I probably wouldn’t get much use of the left hand back, which I believe was part of their psychology: prepare you for the worst, yet remain ambiguous about it. Both of my feet and toes would drag as well because of additional nerve damage in my legs, so I was dealing with those issues as well.
From there it was a long process before I received my first prosthesis, which was kind of funny. It was an Army prosthesis that didn’t work. I say this jokingly, but it was more of a contraption than it was something that was really functional.
How did the nerve damage influence your rehab?
I had to take it one issue at a time. It wasn’t like I’d say, “Oh, I can’t walk very good,” or “I can’t hold anything in my left hand.” I could only focus on hurdling one obstacle at a time and achieve tiny victories with patience. If I ever focused my mind on the severity of my situation, it would become overwhelming, so I adapted by compartmentalizing things, making them more manageable. It was a few months before my feet stopped dragging, and I really started re-gaining use of my left hand.
Tell me about your first prosthesis that didn’t work…
There are only about 2-3” of my arm right below the elbow, so my prosthesis requires what are called “step-up” hinges attached to a small socket ,encapsulating everything below the elbow. The prosthesis didn’t work too well because my arm would roll around inside the socket. So my ability to control the thing was diminished.
Jumping forward a couple of years, it wasn’t until a “locking elbow” component was developed and added to the prosthesis, that I could really improve my function and feel like I had a prosthesis I could actually use. The locking elbow was a Godsend because I could even play the guitar a little bit .
What was it like to play the guitar again for the first time?
I’m a right-handed guitarist, so I used the prosthesis to strum; it was difficult though. I was filled with a couple of conflicting
emotions. While it was so incredibly rewarding to be able to play again, I was also frustrated because I couldn’t play it like I used to, much less become even better than I was prior to the incident. And although some amputees play the guitar with their stumps, I couldn’t. There just wasn’t a prosthesis out there that could allow me to do what I wanted to do, which was play classical guitar, requiring five fingers. Probably the most difficult part of losing the arm, other than the sorrow I knew my family was feeling, came about a year later. After struggling so hard to play the guitar, I just knew I wasn’t ever going to get better. Sometimes being a perfectionist has its downfalls.
As a young kid who wanted to be a rock n’ roll star, how did this affect you?
There was a period of four years where I got involved with drugs. Because drugs were so available in the Haight Ashbury of San Francisco, my need to escape was met. And while I didn’t grow my hair long, I did grow a beard for a short period of time. This wasn’t a political statement by any means, it was just personal. Drugs were so readily available, they were everywhere. Though I smoked Pot, it was not my drug of choice: I got involved with amphetamines because I wanted that speed trip that made me feel like I was really thinking clearly, really moving ahead, making me feel like everything was going be all right– it was a euphoria of well being—mind and body. I just wanted to play, and I kept telling myself that I was making up for lost time.
Over several months in ’72, I began to cut out drugs and cigarettes, and decided I wanted to go to school. That’s when I pursued my interest in photography. I realized one day that without a high school diploma, there was nothing in my future. And by ’82 I had obtained a certificate from the Glen Fishback School of Photography, and AA from Sacramento City College and a BA from the University of California, Sacramento. While working toward a Master’s in Art with a concentration in Photography, I had to drop out due to health problems.
What draws you to photography? What do you love about it?
It’s a self-expression. It was an excellent medium through which I could express myself. I really couldn’t do it through music, so I did it visually. I loved taking pictures and shooting movies. Getting into journalism, working for a newspaper, shooting still photography was “It” for me! Everybody wanted my job because I worked in the San Luis Obispo area and part of my beat was the ocean. I was paid to shoot all the swim suit competitions and cover Pro Beach Volleyball at Pismo Beach. Never remembered the men’s volleyball for some reason, ha ha! Aside from the cushy gigs, I had my fair share of hard news too. It was great to feel connected to a profession.
Statistically speaking, a high number of upper extremity amputees don’t utilize prostheses s out of frustration or their inability to use it. You’re a great example of someone who really embraces using it and does so very successfully. How did having prosthesis affect your career in photography, a profession that relies on your ability to use your hands?
I had my share of frustrations, but I can’t ever remember a time when I wanted to abandon the prosthesis because I knew I needed it to do the things I wanted to do. I had seen guys out there with prostheses and knew what they could do with them, and I felt I could do that too.
I did feel like I had a disadvantage over “able-bodied” photographers because this was in the days before auto-focus, so I learned to use my right arm solely for positioning the camera, while the left hand performed every other function like advancing the film, releasing the shutter, adjusting the aperture and focusing a shot. Journalism is competitive, so I had to keep up with the other guys. I can’t say that I ever became as fast as they were, but I came pretty damn close. And I absolutely loved the work so much, and when you love something enough, you’re just going to do it– no matter what it takes.
I had done a lot of freelance work like weddings and portraits, etc. prior to getting into journalism, and that really helped prepare me for the newspaper. By the time I got there, I could do a number of things with the hook and left hand. Oddly enough, there were a few instances when the left hand became more of a limiting factor. For example, I had a couple of assignments covering a potential Tsunami. The beach would become so biting cold that it would render my left hand pretty close to useless. Cold temperatures really exacerbated the nerve damage. I got caught outside in a storm once because I couldn’t find my keys, let alone open my car door.
Let’s talk about the social side of using a prosthesis. When people realize you use a hook, how does it affect the way they treat you?
To this day, and it’s going on 45 years now, People are watching me, and that’s understandable because people are curious, especially children. When they stare, I stop and tell them that it’s what the doctors gave me when I lost my arm. They seem satisfied with my words (at least at the time). More often than not, people treat me with respect. Though it doesn’t happen often anymore, there’s one thing I’ve never really gotten over: every once-in-a-while, I’d like to feel like I’m not on stage, not so different. So, even nowadays I tend to feel self-conscious at times, but I remember earlier on, it was really bad being eyed. I think I’ve come a long way. It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. Back then I was very uncomfortable with it, but it took some years to get used to.
This being your right hand, is there a proper etiquette involved with hand-shakes, introductions, etc?
I think people handle this really well. The most comfortable thing for me is to offer my left hand and just turn it over, but there certainly have been some awkward moments where people will extend their right hand, look down and say, “Oh!” and immediately retract their hand. They don’t know what to do so they get more embarrassed than I do. I smile and continue to offer my left hand.
There’s only one instance where I shook hands with another hook and it made a terrible clanking sound, so I think it embarrassed the hell out of both of us. But like I mentioned previously, it’s like anything else, it’s just something you have to get used to, because life goes on.
What about the DMV and driving? Have you ever had any issues in that regard?
Never. Never had one person ask me about it. On driver’s exams, they see that I can use my left hand just fine, so there aren’t any issues with it. I’m sure the staff was notified to pay attention to my situation, but I’ve never had anyone mention it specifically. I use the hook to drive with every once in a while, not very often, because I always have the fear of needing to steer away from something quickly and the hook not functioning properly.
You’ll never believe this, but I have only had one ticket in the last 45 years. The officer pulled me over for speeding. When he saw my arm he didn’t mention it other than asking how I lost it. Now that I think about it, I believe he let me off with only a warning. There’s was a certain camaraderie with military, law enforcement and fire which made my job in journalism a lot easier. There was an unspoken trust that I would capture photos that were sensitive and respectful—no dead bodies or fire victims. I miss the camaraderie.
If you were to give advice to someone who is in a very similar situation, what would you tell them?
Wow. That’s a tough one. There are times I think about the guitar and what it would’ve been like, but I wouldn’t trade what happened to me, I can tell you that. Life goes on.
I learned that, for the most part, an amputation can also be an advantage because people are more willing to help. They’re more willing to give you a little space or some time to perfect something. My job in journalism is a good example. Because of my disability, they were willing to give me more room to work it out. I had the ambition, drive and passion to make it work, and I did. I was never late on a deadline!
At the time, it may feel like it’s taking forever to recover, but over time– little by little–you’ll get to where you want to be so, have the patience to let it happen. I guess the bottom line is that a positive attitude, passion and hope are far more powerful than any obstacles you will face.