Fox­hole Prom­ises Made Good

How Serv­ing in Viet­nam Led to Lives of Pub­lic Ser­vice

USA TODAY US Edition - - OPINION - By Shel­ley Ly­ford for West Health

The fol­low­ing is an ex­cerpt. For the com­plete story go to fox­holes The writer, Shel­ley Ly­ford, is the daugh­ter of Doug Ly­ford and Pres­i­dent and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fi­cer of West Health, founded by phi­lan­thropists Gary and Mary West. West Health is a fam­ily of non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions ded­i­cated to low­er­ing the cost of health­care and en­abling se­niors to suc­cess­fully age in place with ac­cess to high­qual­ity, af­ford­able health­care and sup­port­ive ser­vices. The two most im­por­tant men in my life—my fa­ther, Doug Ly­ford, a beloved high school teacher; and my long­time boss and men­tor, suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man and phi­lan­thropist Gary West—both an­swered the call of duty and served in Viet­nam back in 1968. While they never met there, they shared an ex­pe­ri­ence that would shape their lives and lega­cies. COM­ING TO LIGHT

As the 50th an­niver­sary of the Tet Of­fen­sive neared last year, I sat down with each of them to ask about their “war sto­ries.” While I am close with my fa­ther, his time over­seas re­mained a mys­te­ri­ous black hole in his life story. The same was true for Gary, whom I have known for more than 12 years while lead­ing his foun­da­tion and help­ing him shape his phil­an­thropic legacy. As we talked, these two 71-year-old men seemed to trans­form back into the 21-year-old boys who were plucked from the safety and com­fort of ru­ral Amer­ica and dropped into a trop­i­cal jun­gle half a world away where dan­ger lurked at ev­ery turn.

My fa­ther’s draft notice ar­rived five days af­ter he grad­u­ated from Ver­mont Tech­ni­cal Col­lege. He didn’t want to go to war, but as a brash young man, he wasn’t scared of it ei­ther, at least not at first.

“I thought I could take on the world,” he said. “That changed the day my fa­ther came to say good­bye to me at Fort Dix af­ter ba­sic train­ing. It’s hard to walk away from your fa­ther know­ing you might not re­turn. I felt pretty small when I got on that plane to Viet­nam.” At about the same time, Gary joined a trans­porta­tion unit in Omaha, Neb., that ended up de­ploy­ing to Viet­nam. He was dat­ing a woman named Mary and learned that if they mar­ried they would re­ceive $100 a month more, and a $25,000 death ben­e­fit if he were killed in com­bat. They wed a few weeks be­fore he shipped out. “THINGS GOT REAL IN A HURRY” It didn’t take long for ter­ror to strike. “When our trans­port plane was land­ing out­side of Saigon, it looked so green and peace­ful, I thought, ‘Oh hell, this is go­ing to be a piece of cake,’” my fa­ther said. “That first night a rocket hit some of the bar­racks with the new re­cruits. I could hear peo­ple hol­ler­ing ‘Medic!’ Things got real in a hurry.” Mean­while, Gary was based at Cam Ranh Bay, un­load­ing ma­te­rial from ships. One week a month, his unit drove a con­voy to re­sup­ply troops in the field. Gary rode in the back of a jeep, clutch­ing a mounted ma­chine gun pointed into the dense jun­gle.

“You couldn’t see 10 feet off the road in ei­ther di­rec­tion,” he said. “Come night­fall, we would cir­cle the wag­ons in an en­camp­ment. If there was a bright moon, you could sleep pretty soundly. If it was a moon­less night or cloudy, you bet­ter be on guard. That’s when the fire­fights hap­pened.”

Sta­tioned far­ther south, my fa­ther’s unit re­built vil­lages the Viet Cong (VC) had de­stroyed. “We were con­stantly on the look­out for trip wires. I fol­lowed one to an open well where it was wired to a 500-pound bomb that hadn’t det­o­nated.” Dad’s voice broke as he spoke. “Bad things hap­pened in those vil­lages. I can still see bod­ies float­ing down the river with their hands wired to­gether by the VC.”

“Night was the worst,” he said. “I feel like I never slept in Viet­nam. When you were set up on a perime­ter at night, you had an M60 ma­chine gun. You had your Clay­mores out and hand grenades. The VC would charge our bunker line with dy­na­mite on their backs.” Gary also spoke to the fear of an en­emy you rarely saw in day­light, and the mor­tal reck­on­ing that en­sued. “When the shooting or mor­tars started, you didn’t know if there were five or 500 peo­ple out there. On more than one night I said,

‘God, if You get me through this, I prom­ise You some­day I’ll do some­thing re­ally good for the world.’” My fa­ther made a sim­i­lar pledge dur­ing a night­time fire­fight. “In Cu Chi in Fe­bru­ary 1969, we were pretty much over­run. We knew some­thing was go­ing on be­cause the 101st Air Cav­alry was com­ing down and supporting us. They set up their perime­ters re­ally late at night, and we said to our­selves, ‘ This is not go­ing to be good.’” He paused, then con­fessed, “Shel­ley, you’re the first I’ve ever told this to. The guys right in front of me were killed. The NVA [North Viet­namese Army] launched their rock­ets right up to where we were. The next rocket— I can still see it—would have cleaned us out. I made my peace with God that night. I said, ‘If You let me come home, I will work to leave this earth bet­ter than it was when I got here.’” HOME­COM­ING Fi­nally, their tours ended. My dad was so de­ter­mined to leave the war be­hind him that he threw his duf­fle bag with all his gear in a dump in Viet­nam. Every­body wanted to for­get. “Even my fam­ily never asked what went on in Viet­nam,” my fa­ther re­called. “My par­ents just wanted to put it be­hind them. They were just so happy I came home alive, they didn’t even want to talk about it.”

For my fa­ther and other re­turn­ing vet­er­ans, the trauma en­dured. “The psy­cho­log­i­cal in­juries were the worst. A lot of guys sur­vived the war but couldn’t sur­vive the mem­o­ries. It didn’t help that Viet­nam vet­er­ans were so dis­liked. Many of the vets who fought for our coun­try com­mit­ted sui­cide or drank them­selves to death be­cause they had nowhere to turn.”

My fa­ther vowed to re­sist that fate. “I fig­ured that since I sur­vived, some­body wanted me to do some­thing in this world.”

To climb out of the fog of war, he kept busy work­ing at his fam­ily’s dairy farm and at a ma­chine shop. “Then I met your mom,” he said, “and she kept me oc­cu­pied for 24 hours a day.” Dad went back to school and earned an ed­u­ca­tion de­gree and be­gan teach­ing high school math and in­dus­trial arts. But he was much more than a teacher. He took trou­bled and less for­tu­nate kids un­der his wing, pro­vid­ing sup­port and guid­ance on life’s chal­lenges - and many a warm meal at our fam­ily din­ner ta­ble. For decades, he also de­voted him­self to help­ing vet­er­ans and Gold Star fam­i­lies.

Gary, too, hon­ored his fox­hole prom­ise, but in a dif­fer­ent way. He worked hard for 40 years along­side his wife, Mary, build­ing a busi­ness that even­tu­ally em­ployed 30,000 peo­ple. “I felt my con­tri­bu­tion to so­ci­ety was cre­at­ing tens of thou­sands of jobs,” he said. “I knew those jobs were help­ing thou­sands of fam­i­lies.” In 2006, when Gary and Mary sold their con­trol­ling in­ter­est in their busi­ness, West Cor­po­ra­tion, they be­came bil­lion­aires. They could have bought a foot­ball team or a trop­i­cal is­land and never worked an­other day.

“But I kept think­ing of those nights in Viet­nam when I told God that if He got me out of there, I would do some­thing good for the world,” Gary said. “I knew I could do more.”

“It was liv­ing with fear that taught me what poor peo­ple en­dure,” he said. “I have em­pa­thy for peo­ple liv­ing in hous­ing projects or on the streets. For them, ev­ery day is like a day I ex­pe­ri­enced in Viet­nam. A lot of peo­ple right here in the USA live in fear for their lives. Fear of gang vi­o­lence, or fear of an ill­ness they can’t af­ford to treat, or fear of be­ing aban­doned in old age with nowhere to live.”

“It’s sim­ply in­tol­er­a­ble to me that the rich­est coun­try in the world can’t pro­vide for the ba­sic health needs of its most vulnerable cit­i­zens due to our grossly over­priced health­care sys­tem.” “Ru­n­away health­care costs are con­sum­ing our coun­try’s wealth to the point we can’t prop­erly ed­u­cate our chil­dren, care for our se­niors, im­prove our in­fra­struc­ture, keep our mil­i­tary strong or prop­erly de­fend our bor­ders,” he said. Gary turned his com­pas­sion and his out­rage into ac­tion. He and Mary pledged their en­tire for­tune to the mis­sion of en­sur­ing all Amer­i­cans— es­pe­cially se­niors, vet­er­ans and the poor—have ac­cess to the af­ford­able, high-qual­ity health­care they de­serve. They es­tab­lished West Health—a fam­ily of non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions in­clud­ing a med­i­cal re­search in­sti­tute, a health­care pol­icy cen­ter, and a foun­da­tion that has al­ready awarded hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in grants to low­er­ing costs and trans­form­ing our health­care sys­tem.

Gary’s legacy of ser­vice will en­dure not only be­cause of his fi­nan­cial largess, but be­cause he has been such an in­spi­ra­tion to so many peo­ple – in­clud­ing me. He has shown me that com­pas­sion is the re­new­able life force that mul­ti­plies the power of good works. He’s taught me not to play “small-ball” when it comes to so­cial change. Be­gin lo­cally, but when you find a so­lu­tion to a prob­lem, don’t hes­i­tate to scale it up to help as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. They ar­rived in Viet­nam as boys and re­turned as men, bat­tered and bruised, but with an al­tru­ism forged in the cru­cible of com­bat. They went on to heal their com­mu­ni­ties and make good on their fox­hole prom­ises. This is an ex­cerpt. For the com­plete story go to­holes Learn more about Gary and Mary West’s phil­an­thropic ef­forts to lower health­care costs and im­prove care for se­niors at west­ I’m grate­ful for the wis­dom Gary and my fa­ther have shared with me over the years. I’m even more grate­ful for the love, hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism and ex­am­ples they’ve set for so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity in life and work.

The au­thor’s fa­ther, Doug Ly­ford, in 1968. Credit: Doug Ly­ford

Gary West, in an un­dated photo, served in Viet­nam at the same time as the au­thor’s fa­ther, Doug Ly­ford. Credit: Gary West

Shel­ley Ly­ford with Gary and Mary West in De­cem­ber 2018. Credit: Shel­ley Ly­ford

The au­thor and her fa­ther, Doug Ly­ford, on a re­cent fish­ing trip. Credit: Shel­ley Ly­ford

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