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By Glenn Tornell, Published January 28 2003

Not all heroes are on The Wall

It was just another Monday in the fetid fields surrounding Cu Chi, a small village in a densely mined and enemy-occupied region northwest of Saigon called the Iron Triangle.

The humidity and fear was as thick as bile as the 25th Infantry Division platoon schlepped into the boonies.

It was 7:30 a.m. Jan. 8, 1968, the same day Elvis Presley turned 32. But none of the soldiers were humming the melody to "G.I. Blues."

Especially Pfc. Jon Hovde, a 19-year-old grunt from Fertile, Minn., who just nine days earlier saw one of his best friends vanish in front of his eyes when he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Hovde was at the controls of a 13-ton armored personnel carrier, kind of a battlefield taxi and gunship, following two 52-ton M48 tanks on a mission to clear a cover of rubber trees.

What happened next would forever change his life.

After his squad leader ordered Hovde to pass the two tanks and take point on patrol, his vehicle rumbled over a 350-pound anti-tank mine, setting off a mind-boggling explosion. It shredded the vehicle's 3½-inch armor and blew its engine half a football field away.

In the bedlam that followed, a medic pulled Hovde's scorched and torn body from the burning vehicle, couldn't find a pulse in his left arm, pronounced him dead and rushed to help two other American soldiers injured by another blast.

What the medic didn't know was that Hovde's left arm, still hanging in his shirt, had been severed from his body.

Crushed dreams, body

Evacuated by helicopter to a nearby Army hospital, Hovde didn't wake until six days later.

"The pain was so intense, I just wanted to die," he says. "Half my body was gone, along with my future."

He lost his left arm and leg, two fingers on his right hand, his skull was fractured, his right foot was crushed, and he had 185 wire stitches in his good arm and 190 wire stitches in his good leg.

Hovde became one of 75,000 severely disabled Vietnam vets and one of 1,081 who sustained multiple amputations.

On a more personal level, he was another teenage G.I. with crushed dreams and a body to match.

The big question was, "How damaged was his heart?"

Hovde, now 54, is a retired 3M executive and former president of the Minnesota School Board Association, living comfortably on a hobby farm outside his hometown of Fertile. He is finishing a book about his experiences, "Wings of Fire," and gives motivational speeches.

His message: No matter how dark the future appears, you can endure and make a difference.

"Lewis Puller Jr. (a severely maimed Vietnam vet) said it best in his autobiography 'Fortunate Son,' " Hovde says. " 'Out of great tragedy can come great good.' "

As proof, Hovde not only can hit a golf ball 165 yards with his right arm and take two-mile walks, he can still smile.

Shyness disappears

What's so unlikely is that Hovde was a poster boy for shyness as a youth. "In first grade, my twin sister had to raise her hand and ask the teacher if it was all right if I went to the bathroom," he says. "I almost passed out when I had to give a book report in high school."

Now he talks, without notes, in front of as many as 2,000 people.

"I don't know what it is that compels auditoriums full of kids to sit like church mice and listen to me for 60 minutes and then give me a standing ovation," says Hovde, who has delivered more than 400 addresses across the country during the past two decades.

Hovde says he survived his Vietnam injuries because of the encouragement he received from three ordinary people in the Cu Chi field hospital: his then 27-year-old Army nurse Kay Layman, now working for a hospice in Albuquerque; and the late Army chaplains Father J.E. Vessels, who died after a second bypass surgery in 1990, and Pastor Donald Ostroot, who died from cancer in 1981 and was buried in his hometown of Pelican Rapids, Minn.

The three stayed by his side when he needed it most, offering optimism at a time when he couldn't even comprehend it.

After being evacuated, Hovde spent 30 days recuperating at a Japanese hospital before the Army sent him to Letterman General in San Francisco for another seven months of rehabilitation. The citizens of Fertile raised $2,000 to fly his parents out to see him.

"It must have shocked them," he says. "Besides missing two limbs then, my weight dropped from my normal 160 pounds to 98 pounds."

Right after high school and before enlisting in the Army, Hovde moved to Rodeo, Calif., to work construction for his uncle. That's where he met Darlene, a friend of his cousin.

During his recovery at Letterman Hospital in San Francisco, and before he was fitted with artificial limbs, he bought a car, which he drove 40 miles to Rodeo on weekends to visit his uncle and Darlene. "I'd toss the wheelchair in the trunk and hop on one leg to the driver's seat."

Ten months after leaving the hospital, Jon and Darlene married and moved to Fertile. That was almost 35 years ago. Today, they have two grown children and grandchildren.

Hovde graduated from MSUM in 1974 with a double degree, in finance and business.

The next seven years were right out of a storybook. He took a job at 3M Corp. in the Twin Cities, bought a house, two cars and a boat, raised a family and started climbing the corporate ladder, becoming the merchandising supervisor for the company's household products division.

Then a few Vietnam wounds reopened. First came disc surgery, which laid him up for seven months. Then, after four infections in his heel bone, doctors considered amputating his right foot, a move that would have confined him to a wheelchair.

"I loved that job, but I just couldn't go on," he says. "Two weeks after I quit 3M, the drainage in my heel bone stopped. It must have been the stress."

He returned to Fertile, ran for the school board, won the election and kept the job for 16 years. Eventually, he rose to prominence in the 2,200-member School Board Association, and in 1996 was elected its president.

Life-changing event

In between, he had an epiphany that changed his life forever. It happened in Washington, D.C., in 1982, when he was one of five Minnesota veterans selected to attend the unveiling of the Vietnam War Memorial, which lists the names of the 58,229 American soldiers killed or missing in that war.

"I never really talked much about my war experiences until then," Hovde says. "There were parades, speeches, ceremonies. I met three Congressional Medal of Honor winners, one of them wounded the same day I was. It was impossible to escape the subject of war. Ever since, I've been pursuing my next vow -- to make a difference --by speaking about my war experiences to whatever group would listen."

The St. Paul Pioneer Press did an unprecedented five-part, front-page series of articles on Hovde in the fall of 1998 leading up to his successful quest to contact his Army nurse, Kay Layman.

After an interminable search, the son of a Vietnam colleague, using the Internet, found Layman in Albuquerque, N.M. On Independence Day in 1998, Hovde received a voice-mail message from Layman, the first time he'd heard her voice in 30 years.

"I still have the message saved on my voice mail," he says.

After several long-distance conversations, Hovde and his wife drove to Albuquerque to meet Layman, now a hospice nurse.

"I thought I could handle it," Hovde says. "But when we met again, I just let 30 years of tears flow."

To this day, Hovde insists he's no hero. "The names of heroes are etched on granite walls," he said. "My story is our story, a story of this nation and who we are as people. It's very much about ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances who have the ability to do their best and overcome tragedy."

Tornell is the director of the news bureau at Minnesota State University Moorhead.