Life after Army-altering tour
As part of our commitment to community development and education, Ford Motor Company and the Ford Fund have donated nearly $11 million to veterans’ organizations. In this occasional series, we talk with veterans about their time in the military, re-adjusting to civilian society, the nonprofit that helped them move forward, race relations and more.
Not long after a devastating bomb attack on Jan. 11, 1969, U.S. Army Sgt. James Sursely laid in his hospital bed trying to think of football players who were missing two legs and an arm.
None came to mind. Still, he has no regrets about volunteering to serve in Vietnam.
Plans are meant to be altered
For Sursely, high school was all about football.
“The fact that I got an education at the same time was secondary,” laughs the Rochester, Minn. native. When he noticed his former classmates were going to college or to work in the big city, he decided to join the U.S. Army (“the only true branch” of the armed forces, he quips). It was 1965.
Sursely’s plan was to sign up for three years, get the educational benefits associated with the G.I. Bill and then play college football. He was confident in his ability to handle the military’s then-rigorous physical requirements, and he would be embarking on something exciting, challenging even. At the same time, he thought, he’d be giving back to his country.
In June 1967, after six months of training stateside, Sursely was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, where he worked as a track vehicle mechanic — someone who worked on tanks, armored personnel carriers (APC) and other vehicles that ride tracks. But the work wasn’t much different than a 9-to-5 job.
“You just wore a green uniform while you were doing it,” he says.
So, Sursely told his sergeant he wanted to go to Vietnam.
Before approving the transfer, his sergeant made him talk with soldiers who had been there. Four days later, Sursely was convinced going to Vietnam was what he wanted and needed to do.
“It wasn’t a matter of trying to be a John Wayne type. There wasn’t any heroics,” Sursely said. “I just didn’t feel like I was making the contribution I was supposed to be making. I expected something more challenging. If I wanted just a job, I would have stayed home and worked.”
Sursely reported to Vietnam on March 1, 1968. Comfortable talking to higher-ranking personnel, he approached his first sergeant and told him he was a mechanic and was ready to get to work.
The first sergeant said, “Son, we don’t really have a motor pool in Vietnam,” and added that Sursely would be a machine gunner on an APC who would fight as needed and repair the track on the carrier as needed.
“About 10 and a half months into my 12-month tour, I got blown up by about 25 pounds of TNT that was in a plastic bag with a detonator,” Sursely says plainly.
Being raised in a Christian, Midwestern family in a great community and learning discipline at home and in sports gave Sursely just the drive he needed.
“It gives you the mindset of what you have to do,” Sursely said. “You lay in the hospital and draw on those experiences. You draw on just what you need to get through. I still do that, and that was 48 years ago.”
The 69-year-old says he doesn’t recall grieving to any great extent about having to give up playing football because he was too busy being grateful.
“You feel so fortunate to be alive and be back in the United States and to be among family and friends.”
Sursely says the support of fellow wounded colleagues also aided in his recovery. He recovered and rehabbed in Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colo., where he was surrounded by others his age with similar injuries.
“You were all just going through it together, and you were each other’s support group,” Sursely says. “You were able to make light of things that others wouldn’t understand, and you were able to laugh together in physical and occupational therapy. It was a very unique experience at 21 years of age.”
Focused on the strength of his upbringing and military support group, Sursely found joy in accomplishments others would view as minor.
“I can remember when I got my pants off and got on the bathroom stool. Picture now: how do you get your pants back on?
“When I did, it was a major accomplishment. It was like climbing Mt. Everest. I thought, if I can do this, then I can do this, and I can do something else. Every day was a brand-new experience that gave you the drive to move on.”
Top 5 experiences
Raised: Rochester, Minn.
Family: Married to Jean, 32 years. Three sons ages 42, 41 and 34 (the youngest passed away) and one daughter age 30
Careers: Staff Sergeant E6 track vehicle mechanic, real estate agent, DAV past national commander
Losing limbs didn’t change Sursely’s approach to life nor his attraction to women. His big question, though, was would they be attracted to a man missing two legs and an arm and sitting in a wheelchair. He and his medical center buddies were certainly game to find out.
They went to bars and nightclubs; and, Sursely observed, “I don’t think the women even noticed.”
Some of the guys groaned about their situation after a few drinks, but he never thought anyone would find that attractive. So, he tried a novel tact:
“I just tried to be myself. It wasn’t like you were going to dress it up and make it any different than what it was.”
Sursely counts becoming romantically involved while still in rehab among his top 5 truly uplifting experiences.
“I knew then life was going to be OK.”
He was married for 10 years and had two sons with his first wife, who he met while in Colorado. This December, Sursely will celebrate 32 years of marriage with Jean, his second wife, with whom he had a son and daughter.
In Jan. 1970, just a month after his honorable discharge, Sursely ran into some guys around town who started a new chapter of the Disabled American Veterans.
Sursely says joining the DAV got him back in the swing of being part of a military family that supports each other. At the same time, they learned about the benefits available to them. Since joining some 48 years ago, Sursely, who got his real estate license in 1978, has held every possible position (with the exception of chaplain) at the national DAV chapter and at his local central Florida chapter, including service as National Commander.
DAV is a 98-year-old, Ford Motor Company Fund-sponsored nonprofit that works to connect wounded veterans with the healthcare, disability, employment, education and financial benefits they earned during their service.
In 1922, Henry Ford provided 50 Model T Ford vehicles to take disabled veterans to their national convention. Ford’s continuing support of the DAV includes donating vehicles (207 so far) to the DAV Transportation Network so veterans can get to medical appointments. Ford Fund also contributes to the DAV Jesse Brown Memorial Youth Scholarship Program for students who volunteered the most hours at VA Medical Centers around the country.
For what Ford does on a national level, purchasing vans for them and getting them the deals on the vehicles they do buy, Sursely says he’s part of the Ford family.
Photo courtesy DAV
On how the military has changed
“My daughter’s husband is in his 15th year of the Army … conversing with him is an enlightening experience. Almost all of the discipline is gone. Holding them accountable for what they do is gone. It’s unfortunate that it’s gotten to be where it is. That discipline is a crucial key to what kind of military you have.”
On race in the military
“Where I grew up in Rochester, Minn., the only black people you saw were there to visit the Mayo Clinic or worked somewhere in or around town. Maybe only on a couple occasions would I run into anyone who was black. When I played football, some of the players on the other team were black. When I joined the Army, it was an interesting experience. In the barracks in basic training, 25 percent were black or Hispanic, and they were drafted. I’d never experienced anyone from the south… most were afraid of anyone who was white. But I never talked to anyone else any different than anyone I grew up with. I thought, ‘What’s the difference?’ I just recognized a fellow soldier who was just trying to get through basic training just like I was. They fought alongside you just as strong as anyone you did. I never thought they were any different than you and I are.”
On veterans’ issues that need to be addressed
“It’s unfortunately the thing that just happened there in (Sutherland Springs) Texas. For people who have mental health issues, like PTSD — a term too loosely thrown around — help in that category is extremely important. Some don’t have physical issues but the mental health or mental illness portion should really be addressed.”
On taking a knee or standing during the national anthem
“I don’t really understand how a member of a football team — whether you're black or Hispanic or anything — how that truly brings focus and solves any problem. I think it’s just drawn negative attention, and it’s certainly alienated a lot of people. If the National Anthem plays, you should be standing with your hand over heart. I will be sitting in my wheelchair, but there will never be a day where I don’t salute or put my hand over my heart.”