Standing for valor
By Dimitri Vassilaros
Friday, May 23, 2008
Fred Tregaskes saw the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam after his body was tagged and bagged and placed in refrigerated storage.
"I won't wear a jacket to this day," says the retired master sergeant, now 71. "I can't stand the sound of a zipper."
The tunnel went on forever, Tregaskes says. "I saw people I had known and served with, all dead. The light was brighter than the sun but pure white. You could not turn away but it did not hurt your eyes. It kept coming, kept coming. It was drawing you in."
The career soldier -- a paratrooper who led squads and platoons through very unfriendly fire -- didn't realize it at the time, but he was marked for life with a band of brothers who had a similar experience.
"I made a conscious decision to come back," he says. His wife and their six children in 1967 were his motivation while U.S. military doctors, in what was then South Vietnam, were desperately trying to keep him alive after enemy fire blew him apart and eventually put him in a wheelchair.
Tregaskes and his wife Frieda (the childhood sweethearts have been married 51 years) live in Armstrong County. And he has a place in the Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Military Museum and Memorial in Oakland. Tregaskes also heads the Keystone Paralyzed Veterans of America.
He was awarded the Silver and Bronze stars and Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster. None were for his biggest battle against the most ruthless of friendly fire.
The wounds were so bad that his wife, a registered nurse, could still see his internal organs through them months after the doctors saved his life. But they kept trying to tell him that it would not be much of a life. He was warned that he might be better off than a vegetable -- but not much.
Seven rounds of enemy fire went clear through the hip and took off part of the spine. Right hip? Gone. A kidney gone, too, and a lot more of his insides. In a coma for six months. "They really messed me up," he says.
And no feeling in his legs.
The shrinks tried to convince him to accept the fact -- the fact -- that he never would walk again.
So when did Tregaskes finally realize that?
"I have not accepted it yet," he says. "I refused to accept it. I really believe that some day I will be able to walk."
And he did, sort of, with braces and crutches -- braced with a iron will. He "waddled" like a duck, he calls it, and leaned a lot, for all but the last two years.
Tregaskes claims he spots others who had similar near-death experiences by that aura or glow he sees around them.
And he claims, they, about 15 people so far who also "crossed over," have spotted the same around him.
"How are you, my brother?" a stranger asked when both were shopping for tractors. "I told him, 'I'm fine,' and then I asked, 'When did you have your experience?' "
Mrs. T. calls them his "visitors."
And as for a Memorial Day thought for the Trib's readers, Tregaskes says: "Do not give up. Keep on trying. As long as you can get one foot forward, the other will follow. Maintain your faith.
"And never forget your fellow soldier, your fellow man on your right and your left. You watch out for him and he will watch out for you."
Dimitri Vassilaros is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. His column appears Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5637.
(Posted with the gracious permission of the author.)