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'Live date' — Vietnam veteran celebrates ‘chance for life’

Daryl Neumiller stands in front of an Army building in Phu Bai, Vietnam, in 1970. Submitted photo.1 / 2
Daryl Neumiller, left, meets Larry Garzon, a helicopter pilot who flew the medevac that saved Neumiller from a firefight in Vietnam on April 15, 1971. After years of searching, Neumiller was able to locate and meet Garzon in Philadelphia in April 2018. Submitted photo.2 / 2

Monday, April 15, will mark the 48th anniversary of Daryl Neumiller’s “live date” - a term he read in a VFW magazine and adopted to describe the day he was medevaced out of battle during the Vietnam War.

Wounded in action

April 15, 1971, started as business as usual for Neumiller, a 22-year-old Army draftee in his 10th month of service in Vietnam.

By then, he had endured months of “search and destroy” missions in the “hot and sweaty” jungles of Vietnam - at one point going 45 days without a shower - and combat so intense that he recalls thinking, “I’m never going to make it, I might as well accept the fact that I’m a dead man.”

On that particular day, Neumiller’s company had been sent to a battlefield to retrieve the bodies of fallen comrades.

“We got there about 5 o’clock or just before dark and we were going to set up for the night, and here we had walked right into (enemy) bunkers,” Neumiller said.

Within seconds, Neumiller’s company was under heavy fire. Neumiller, who was lying behind some logs, was “hit almost right away” in his right (shooting) arm, his jaw and his left leg when he raised himself up over the logs to try to return fire.

“Just, boom!” Neumiller said. “It was like three of us in a row there and all three of us got hit I’m sure. There was a guy beside me I remember looking at … I know he was dead because his face was gone.”

It took Neumiller a while to realize that he had been hit in multiple places.

“I looked down and I could see the blood coming out of my leg, and then my right arm itched and, when I touched it, I thought, ‘Holy cow, another one,’ and then when I talked I could feel that my jaw had been hit,” he said.

Neumiller was pulled back to a triage area “where you see who’s the worst, and who goes first, and who gets what.”

“At that time, I was one of the worst ones, I think I was the first one out,” he said. “They started calling in medevacs to get us out of there.”

When the medevac helicopter arrived, it hovered over the area and crew members lowered a cable with a “jungle penetrator” on the end. Wounded soldiers were typically strapped into the jungle penetrator and then lifted up into the helicopter. But there was no time to pull Neumiller into the helicopter.

“In my instance, they were taking fire so bad, as soon as they got me on (the jungle penetrator), they said, ‘He’s on!’ and they started flying as they were pulling me in,” Neumiller said. “That’s when I hit the top of a tree.”

Although he did not realize it at the time, the cable he was dangling from had been hit, and crew members later told Neumiller, “We weren’t quite sure whether we were going to get you up or not.”

“At the time, I didn’t realize how bad the fire was,” Neumiller said. “I probably would have been more scared if I had known, but the only thing I could think was, ‘Well, here’s my ticket out of here.’ I was kind of relieved.”

Eventually, he was pulled into the helicopter, where he remembers experiencing the touching kindness of a stranger.

“The only time I really experienced pain was when I was in the helicopter and it was really hurting pretty bad,” Neumiller said. “I was sitting there holding the crew chief by the hand and squeezing it, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m squeezing you too hard but it hurts like heck.’

“And he said, ‘Well you squeeze as hard as you want, buddy. You’re doing fine.”

Neumiller recalls another feeling of “relief” after he was taken to an Army hospital “in the rear” in Vietnam.

“The doctor came in and said, ‘Well I don’t know if I should tell you this …’ and the first thing that popped in my head was that they’re going to have to amputate my leg,” Neumiller said. “And he said, ‘We’re going to have to wire your mouth shut.’ And I said, ‘Oh, is that all?’”

‘Nobody talked about it’

Neumiller underwent months of surgery and physical therapy at Army hospitals in Da Nang, Guam and Colorado, and eventually he was able to walk and eat normally again. He returned home to Jamestown, where he worked for the railroad for 38 years before retiring.

In 1977, he married his wife, Janet “Jeanie” Neumiller. Today, the couple have two children: Michael (Michelle) Neumiller, Jamestown, and Angie (Jay) Dugan, Devils Lake, N.D., and five grandchildren.

For years, Neumiller rarely talked about Vietnam.

“Nobody talked about it,” he said. “There were guys I worked with who didn’t know I was in Vietnam for five, six, seven years after I was back.”

“He never talked about it, he never really did,” Jeanie said, explaining that it took a long time for Americans to really understand what happened in Vietnam and to start honoring Vietnam veterans for their service. She vividly recalls the first time she and Daryl went to a movie that dramatized the Vietnam War.

“When we came out of that movie, it was just silent,” she said. “Nobody was talking. It was something else, it was just such a feeling. I think people started to realize what it was.”

Even now, at age 70, Neumiller had some reservations about being featured in a newspaper story.

“I don’t want to be looked at as somebody special,” Neumiller said. “Of all the other guys who served with me, or who were in worse combat than I was, you have to give them just as much respect as anyone else.”

‘Live date’

Neumiller said his experience in Vietnam “changed my attitude on a lot of things.”

He places little value on “worldly things” but cherishes time spent with family and the people he loves. He is bothered when politicians are quick to declare war without fully appreciating the “sacrifices” of war. More than anything, he has a deep gratitude for the gift of life.

“I’ve seen a lot of young people die who never had a chance to live,” Neumiller said. “At night (in Vietnam), we would talk about what we were going to do when we got home … and some never came home.”

And that is why Neumiller decided to call April 15 his “live date.”

“Instead of calling it my death date, the day I died, it was exactly the day I lived, because I got out of there,” he said. “You kind of start thinking about being given the chance for life, where all those other guys don’t have a chance for life after that day.

“There isn’t a day since I got out of there that I don’t think about it in one way or another, some of the guys or what it really means.”