Despite the cold rain pelting his shoulders, U.S. Army veteran Henry Kent is grinning as his new wheelchair with tank-like treads charges up a grassy hill near his home.
“That’s combat-ready,” shouted fellow veteran Kenneth Henderson.
“Take that hill,” yelled Gregory Gainey, also a veteran.
Kent wheeled around, still grinning, and began to trundle back down. It is a short spurt on what has been a long journey.
The veteran lost his left leg due to an enemy attack while stationed in Vietnam in 1966. Ten different surgeries to repair damage from the attack failed and his leg was amputated above the knee. He still feels blessed, especially so after getting his Action Trackchair on Friday.
With his fellow veterans egging him on, Kent tooled around his yard in Hephzibah, getting drenched from the rain and laughing.
“Christmas ain’t never come for me until today,” he joked. “I am so happy.”
In 1966, he went to Vietnam as part of the 1st Cavalry, which still proudly adorns his shirt and hat. He joined the Army at age 16 – “I had to lie, put my age up”, Kent said. He grew up near Hinesville, Ga., and Fort Stewart and had grown tired of working the cotton fields.
Kent said he saw how men graduated high school and went right back to working alongside him in the fields.
“But I saw guys in the military, they dressed decent. They had on good clothes,” Kent said. “And I said if they can do it, I can do it.”
He got his father to sign for him, enabling him to enlist.
“And that’s all it took,” Kent said. “There were nine of us. So I done him a favor by leaving home.”
Kent was in Vietnam for three months and 18 days – including one fateful day when he was part of the “scramble team” that came to the aid of a convoy under attack.
He said he saw the squad leader fall and ran over to him to see if he could help, thinking the soldier was shot in the shoulder. But when he got there, the top of the man’s head was missing and “I realized I can’t do nothing but pray for him,” Kent said.
A sergeant came running up to their position and Kent yelled at him to get down but the sergeant was shot in the face. Realizing the man was bleeding to death, Kent grabbed him around the chest and began crawling with him. But the machine gun found him, too.
“While I was doing that, that’s when they opened up and shot me in both legs,” Kent said. One bullet blew out his left knee and another struck his right calf. The legs went limp and he could feel the warm sensation of blood pouring out of his right calf.
“It scared me when it bled like that,” Kent said.
But he still needed to get himself and the other wounded soldier out of harm’s way.
“We knew this guy, we couldn’t leave him,” Kent said. “We had to get him out of there.”
But that was easier said than done.
“I tried to crawl and it felt like I was pulling that truck,” Kent said, gesturing at the white pickup in his driveway. “All of my strength was leaving me.”
He knew the enemy was waiting for another would-be rescuer to come along and be ambushed so he didn’t call out. Instead, he prayed.
“You know I was afraid,” Kent said. “But when I prayed my fear went away. That gave me the strength to try and get out of there.”
Eventually, he was rescued, and over the next 10 years would undergo surgeries to try and save the left knee. They were not successful, but Kent doesn’t dwell on it.
“I thank God for all that has happened to me,” Kent said. “They took my leg off but I am still alive. I say I’m not handicapped. I’ve got one leg.”
His latest blessing is the chair he is sitting in. It came while he was pursuing something he has loved since childhood – fishing. He was 5 years old when his dad took him for the first time and he had to learn not to jump around and splash in the water if he wanted to catch anything.
“He finally taught me that patience. You throw that bait out there, you leave it,” Kent said. “We used to fish with crawfish. You put that hook in that crawfish, throw it out there and that fish will see it move and he’ll grab it. Out in the country, that’s all I did is fish out there in the woods.”
Wherever he was stationed during a dozen years in the military, he would find a place to fish. Even confined to his power wheelchair he would find a spot. And that nearly got him in trouble last October. He was invited to fish at a general’s pond at Fort Gordon that appeared to have a flat well-groomed grassy area around it.
“It was like fishing here in the yard,” Kent said, looking out at his lawn. But part of it was soggy and his wheels got stuck in the mud.
“Man, I was scared,” he said.
Luckily, he saw a UPS truck nearby and was able to get the driver’s attention and eventually be rescued.
He had seen an Action Trackchair at a clinic and tried to get the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for the $15,000 chair but they refused, he said. So he turned to Daryl Walker, his health benefits adviser at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center.
Walker contacted The Independence Fund, a non-profit run by combat veterans that seeks to get tools and therapy to the most severely injured veterans – help they might not otherwise get. Kent got approval within a couple of weeks and was then measured so a custom chair could be built for him.
He has attachments for fishing, with a holder for his fishing pole and a built-in tackle box, but others can be outfitted with gunracks for hunting, said Philip Shadle with Georgia Action Mobility Equipment, which delivered Kent’s chair.
It was the 511th Action Trackchair the Independence Fund has provided in just a year of a special initiative, said Steve Danyluk, the founder and president, and a U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran.
Kent has a trail of ponds at Fort Gordon in mind, where he couldn’t go before, and where fish have never seen his line.
“Now,” he said, reaching down and patting the rain-slicked tread with his hand, “they’re in trouble.”