Saving Sergeant Miyares: How a Man Had to Die in Order to Live
by james s. hirsch
Rays of light pour through the windows of a large gymnasium, and soldiers in blue honor guard uniforms and white gloves solemnly march across the wooden floor. All is quiet save their drum-like steps. They walk slowly, because the floor is covered with body bags carrying the dead. But when the soldiers pass a bag, it violently kicks. Then they pass another bag, and it too kicks... then another... and another...
But the soldiers never notice. The dead are alive but trapped, desperate, forgotten… And then it’s over. Sweating and shaking, Urban Miyares wakes up from his dream, without knowing who in the body bags is rescued, and who is left to die. The dream would be a cruel nightmare, except to Urban Miyares, it’s all too real.
The history of diabetes is rich with miracle stories, survivor tales in which improbable heroes overcome every possible odd to cheat certain death. But for drama, inspiration, and courage – amid a backdrop of a bloody war and then a haunting mystery – few stories can compare to that of Urban Miyares.
He grew up in Manhattan, a good athlete with a love of sailing but little interest in college. In 1967, he was drafted by the Army and one year later was sent to South Vietnam as a 20-year-old Army platoon sergeant, a strapping 5’10”, 182 pounder with a wedding band on his finger. He had married his childhood sweetheart, JoAnn, during basic training.
Miyares was in Vietnam only a few weeks before he began to feel ill. Losing weight and feeling sluggish, he went to the sick hall and was tested for malaria. The results were negative, and he was diagnosed with battle fatigue. He would return to the sick hall several times. Once he was diagnosed with peptic ulcers and given Maalox, which fit nicely in his ammunition bag. But his health continued to deteriorate. On combat missions, his backpack alone weighed 50 to 60 pounds, and the jungle heat wore everyone down. When Miyares complained of fatigue, his commanding officer suspected he was angling to go home and threatened to drop him in rank.
Finally, on August 12, 1968, another blistering hot day, Miyares’s platoon was ferried by helicopter to a village in the Mekong Delta that had come under attack, but he never made it. While walking through a field, he began to vomit, his vision was blurred, and he thought he heard mortar bombs. He recalls some yelling and screaming and falling over and hitting water covered with rice paddies. Then all went black.
* * *
Brian Leet was raised in a small town in North Dakota. His father was a combat medic in World War II, serving in New Guinea and the Philippines, and Brian thought he would make a good medic as well. He joined the Army at age 18, excelled in his training, and was sent to Vietnam in 1967. He was stationed in Lai Khe (pronounced lie kae), about 60 miles northwest of Saigon. It was a small Vietnamese village that was also a French rubber plantation and an American military base. It was known as “Rocket City” from the Viet Cong’s 122mm rockets. Leet worked at a primitive aid station and performed a kind of triage for the casualties – military and civilian, American and Vietnamese, men, women, and children – who were flown in by helicopter. Sometimes doctors were on the base, sometimes not, so at times Leet’s supervisors asked him to do things for which he was little qualified. He once amputated a leg, another time an arm. He delivered a shot of epinephrine into a 17-year-old’s heart. He squeezed so much fluid – blood and saline – into so many bodies, his hand developed a spasm. He once delivered a baby. When rockets shook debris from the ceiling, he tried to protect the injured by his placing his body over the patients’. He slept with his rifle.
After a one horrific day, he went into a separate room and broke down crying. He thought he wasn’t going to make it. But he regained his composure, told himself he’d be no good if he behaved like this, and returned to his duties.
One of Leet’s jobs was to check the soldiers who had arrived in Killed In Action bags. They were placed in a separate room, and Leet was to unzip each body bag, confirm the body was dead by checking for a pulse on the neck, and then put a body tag on a big toe. In August of 1968, Leet had been in Lai Khe for 11 months, and he had never found a pulse on any body that had arrived in a KIA bag. But on one hot day when he was making his checks, he unzipped a body bag, felt the neck for a pulse... and found one. This body was alive.
“I was terribly excited but also scared," he later said. “It’s like working at a morgue, and someone sits up.”
Leet made no effort to identify the person. He just picked up the body and carried it to a medical treatment room. A helicopter than airlifted the body out. Leet wrote about the incident in a letter to his fiancée, but he was never told what became of “the man with the heart beat.” Leet returned to the United States one month later. In one year in Vietnam, he had unzipped between 350 and 450 KIA bags. Each body was dead, except one.
* * *
Urban Miyares woke up and saw a blond nurse, and he thought he was in heaven. But he soon realized he was in a military hospital in Saigon two days after he had collapsed in the rice paddies. He had no idea what happened or how he got there, but a clerk from his infantry unit told him that he was “one lucky son of a bitch.”
“They thought you were dead,” the clerk said. “They threw you in a body bag.”
The picture became a bit clearer when the nurse told him about his medical problem: he had diabetes and had fallen into a diabetic coma from high blood sugar when he collapsed. Miyares had never heard the word “diabetes” and wondered if he had caught it from a mosquito or perhaps from something he had eaten. As he later said, “I thought they would patch me up and send me back into the field.”
Instead, he was sent to a hospital in Japan to try to get his blood sugars under control. He had lost 63 pounds and now weighed 119, but his doctors initially allowed him to eat only 700 calories a day. That didn’t last, and Miyares gradually regained his strength and his weight. He was discharged from the army and sent back home. He was never told who discovered him in the body bag.
* * *
Life went on for Urban Miyares, but not easily. He battled depression, had various phobias (at movie theaters, he’d break out in a sweat), and was misdiagnosed with bi-polar disease. He suffered bias on two fronts: having diabetes and being a Vietnam vet, when sentiment against those who served ran high. Miyares says a Wall Street firm fired him when it discovered his military record. With diabetic complications emerging quickly, his health created even greater obstacles. Within months of returning to the US, he began to lose feeling in his legs from diabetic neuropathy. He tried working as a roofer but fell off a house because of problems with his legs. He experienced blurred vision from diabetic retinopathy. He was told he had 20 years to live.
He did the best he could. He used a cane to help with his walking, but there was no remedy for his vision. In 1981, he began taking laser treatments for his eyes, but the therapy was crude, and by 1984 he was legally blind and dependent on a seeing eye dog. In 1982 he was also diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease. It was life-threatening, but his kidney continued to function until he received a transplant in 2004.
It would have been easy for Miyares to use his health or his employment struggles as an excuse to give up, but he didn’t. He and JoAnn had a son, and Miyares wanted to be a role model and was not going to allow any disability to interfere.
In his experiences, rehab counselors had always told him what he couldn’t do in the workforce, so in 1985 he founded the Disabled Businesspersons Association, a non-profit organization that helps disabled individuals either start a business or expand their existing one. Services include everything from market evaluations for new products to equipment research for special needs of disabled employees. “The business world is an able-bodied world,” Miyares likes to say, so the disabled need an extra boost.
Miyares also wanted to demonstrate that his impaired vision, mobility, and kidney need not deter his athletic aspirations. In 1987, he took up Alpine skiing – yes, Alpine skiing – and, with leg braces and Canadian crutches as poles, was soon zipping around corners at more than 60 m.p.h. How does a blind man ski? By wearing an electronic earpiece, with a companion skier telling Miyares when to turn or stop. By 1990, he was the U.S. National Disabled Alpine Ski Champion (in the total blind division) and ranked as the fastest total blind Alpine skier in the world.
Going hell-bent down a mountain was relatively easy compared to sailing across the ocean. Miyares, who had settled down in San Diego, co-founded Challenged America, a therapeutic and rehabilitation sailing program. In 2003, he joined with five other sailors – all but one disabled – and completed the Transpacific Yacht Race, a 2,225-mile run from Los Angeles to Honolulu. They were the only disabled crew to ever compete in the prestigious biennial race, and they did it again in 2005.
Clearly, Miyares has not allowed his diabetes to interfere with his ambitions. He tests his blood sugar eight to ten times a day and has used a “talking glucometer” since 1989 and an insulin pump since the 1990s. He now uses an Animas pump and can accurately bolus by listening to the beeps – a half a unit of insulin is one beep. He says that counting carbs is difficult, because he can’t see what he’s eating, so he relies on trial and error: one slice of pizza, for example, requires four units of insulin. His A1c’s are in the low sixes.
Miyares’ achievements have been widely recognized, including at the White House, where in 1992 President Bush awarded him one of his “Points of Lights” winners for his volunteer service. Miyares sat next to Michael Jackson.
He’s also become a popular lecturer, using humor as his ally. He explains, for example, why the blind are better off than those with sight. (“When my wife is driving and someone cuts her off, it ruins her whole day. But it doesn’t bother me one bit. I often wonder how you sighted people make it through the day. It’s a rough world you live in.”)
The anger that he once felt is gone, he says, as evidenced by the title of one of his speeches: “Diabetes Saved My Life.” He explains that of the eight or nine members from his platoon, he was the only one to return from Vietnam. He had to nearly die in order to live.
But not everything was settled. He couldn’t escape those dreams with the white-gloved solders and the kicking body bags. At times he was scared to go to sleep and would stay up for a day or two at a time, then start taking naps during the day, and then after five or six days, he’d finally crash. A deep slumber kept the nightmares at bay.
Then in 2006, he wrote a story for the Disabled American Veterans newsletter, describing his experiences in Vietnam and the remarkable sequence of events that placed him in a body bag, only to be rescued by someone unknown. He wrote that he really wanted to thank that person.
* * *
Brian Leet had his own health issues when he returned from Vietnam, as he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He later ruptured a disc in his back and became 50 percent disabled, which explains why he was reading the newsletter for disabled vets, when he came across Urban Miyares’s story.
I thought this can’t be real,” said Leet, who lives in Minnesota outside of Minneapolis. “I got chills up and down my spine.”
He wasn’t sure what to do. The body bag incident occurred 38 years ago, and Leet had tried to put the entire Vietnam experience to rest. He had struggled with his own emotional state when he returned, so what emotions might this unleash? And how could he even be sure he was the one who rescued Urban Miyares? But his wife vividly recalled the letter he had written describing that event, and the basic facts – the location, the date, the circumstances – all seemed to match up.
Some time passed, but Leet finally sent an email to Miyares, who promptly responded. Phone calls followed, and the two men retraced the steps that brought their lives together in the Mekong Delta. They had other things in common as well: Like Miyares, Leet had devoted his career to helping Vietnam vets as a vocational rehabilitation counselor.
In 2008, Miyares received a phone call from Leet. “What are you doing for lunch today?” he asked. “I’m in town, and I think it’s time we met.”
They and their wives got together, and as Miyares says, “It was the longest lunch I’ve ever had.”
For Leet, the meeting brought back a flood of memories, some searing. “It stirred things up pretty good,” he said, “but I won’t say in a bad way.”
Indeed, the friendship blossomed, with the two men talking regularly on the telephone and now seeing each other at veterans’ events. Leet said the whole thing “is still hard to fathom” but suggests a personal void in his life has been filled. “Very few people ever thanked me for the things I did in Vietnam,” he said, “but Urban was one of them. Obviously, that makes me feel good.”
For Miyares, who sees his life as string of improbable blessings, he is grateful not only that he could thank the man who saved him but for discovering such a special man indeed. “He’s so humble, he doesn’t want anything,” Miyares said. “Our greatest heroes are those who sacrifice their own lives to help others.”
Miyares has another reason to be grateful. At last, all his dreams are pleasant.