Dale Wilson of Troutman, N.C., says he prefers to fly under the radar and keep a low profile. It's hard for him to do that right now since he learned in August that he was selected as the 2009 National Outstanding Disabled American Veteran of the Year.
Nominated in 2007 as the North Carolina Disabled Veteran of the Year, Wilson hoped that by not submitting paperwork as requested by the DAV Chapter 27 in Concord for the national honor that the matter would be dropped. Not so, he learned this summer while attending the National DAV Convention in Denver, Colorado.
His church recently held Dale Wilson Day and there have been newspaper articles printed and YouTube videos posted about his honor. But, the 1976 Catawba College alumnus who lost three limbs in Vietnam and today spends much of his time assisting fellow disabled veterans says he can think of dozens of others soldiers who are more deserving of the honor than he is.
From There to Here
Wilson was just 19 when he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in November of 1968. U.S. involvement in the war had peaked that year after the Tet offensive. His plan was to sign up for a two-year stint, but a recruiter noted that his high scores were enough to get him into aviation, "the best they had," he recalls. The catch? Wilson would have to enlist for four years not two. He remembers joking that "I wouldn't spend that long in the Boy Scouts," and opted for the two-year stint.
After basic training, Wilson was assigned to the 3rd Platoon, Delta Co., 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division. That company operated in the Arizona Territory of I Corps, one of the most dangerous combat zones in Vietnam, and casualties were high. Dale quickly became a squad leader and "all of a sudden I was in charge of people's lives."
On a November night in 1969, three of his men were separated in the middle of enemy territory and were surrounded by Viet Cong. Wilson took his remaining squad and went back for them. For his courage and leadership in this instance, he was awarded the Silver Star.
On Feb. 19, 1970, while traveling to a zone known as "Boobie Trap Hill," Wilson was injured. He lost his right leg at the hip, part of his left leg and his right arm, and was shipped back to the States, to a naval hospital in Philadelphia, for numerous surgeries and rehabilitation over many months.
"The only thing I could think of as they were loading me in the chopper was how grateful I was that it was me instead of any of my guys."
His daughter, Stephanie Wilson Shaw, recalls hearing how her dad was initially placed in a ward for soldiers not expected to survive. Wilson's resolve and his humor had such a positive impact on those around him that the hospital staff didn't want to move him as he improved.
Looking back on that time from 40 years distance, Wilson says a sense of humor got him and many of his fellow wounded through some very tough months. He also learned that people in the civilian population and disabled soldiers have very different ways of coping with disabilities. Wilson recalls eating out at a restaurant in Philadelphia with several of his fellow disabled soldiers when a well-dressed civilian man came over and offered each of the men at Wilson's table a $20 bill. The civilian, Wilson remembers, was using the monetary gift as a way to tell those veterans "thanks" for their service and sacrifice, but one of the soldiers at Wilson's table perceived the $20 as unwelcomed charity. Wilson learned through that instance to accept all acknowledgements of appreciation, no matter how awkward, with good grace, a lesson he continues to practice today.
In late 1970, Wilson returned to his home in North Carolina with plans to "get me a Dodge Charger and go back to school." He did both. He also met Linda, a young woman from Troutman who after three months of dating would become his wife; today the two have been married for 38 years.
"I told Linda before we got married: 'I promise you it won't be dull,' and it never has been," Wilson says.
He first attended Mitchell Community College, earning a year of college credits, and then transferred to Catawba College to pursue a four-year degree. It was at Catawba that he met a young sociology professor named Edith Bolick. Bolick remembers Wilson's sense of humor and the fact that he was always positive despite his disability.
"My classes were on the third floor of the Hedrick Administration Building on campus and Dale had to get up three flights of steps to get to them. I told him we could move my class to the first floor and I remember him telling me 'No, I'll make it.' And he always did. We spent many hours in my office between classes and became friends.
"When I look at the word 'character' on the Catawba College seal, I think, "Dale Wilson," Bolick notes.
Wilson and Bolick lost touch for several decades after Wilson graduated in 1976 with a degree in sociology. In the 1990s, Bolick was again teaching a sociology class at Catawba when one of her female students wrote a paper about her dad and how she was the child of a man who had endured so much and remained so positive.
"It didn't take me long to figure out that this student's dad was Dale," Bolick recalls. That student was Stephanie Wilson (now Shaw), Wilson's daughter who graduated from Catawba in 1997 with a degree in education and is now a fourth grade teacher.
"I reconnected with Dale when Stephanie graduated and he was invited to be the judge that year for the Faith 4th parade," Bolick says. "We had a wonderful time and rekindled fond memories."
It was Stephanie who shared the YouTube video about her father's honor with Bolick and others at Catawba.
"To his fellow soldiers, he's a hero for what he did in Vietnam," Stephanie explains. "To me, he's a hero for all the other things he did in our lives."
Not a Day Goes By...
A lesser man might be bitter or hardened by such disabilities as Wilson suffers, but Wilson is anything but. His wife Linda describes him as "tender-hearted" and as one who "never acted like he had a disability."
He stays in touch with his fellow Marines who organize annual get-togethers for themselves and their families.
"Never a day goes by that we don't think of each other," he admits. "You don't have to have the same blood to be a brother."
Often late at night, he admits to calling one of his "brothers," just to talk.
He's active in the DAV and several other veterans' service organizations and he often drives other disabled veterans to their appointments at the V.A. hospital in Salisbury.
He is very patriotic and thinks many Americans don't realize "how lucky we are to live in this country." He encourages people to tell today's returning veterans how much their service to their country is appreciated.
Ask him and Wilson will tell you "I feel like I've been blessed." When you hear him talk about his wife; his children, Stephanie and her older brother, Josh; and his five grandchildren (four grandsons and a granddaughter), one tends to agree.
Watch the video about Wilson's award on YouTube.
VIDEO: Wilson's Award on YouTube