May 22, 2013 - When Oxford resident Dr. John Todd lost his sight at the age of 22 during the Vietnam War, he didn't wallow in self-pity, blaming the enemy for shooting him or the U.S. government for sending him to fight in southeast Asia.
Oxford resident Dr. John Todd, who served in the Vietnam War from 1968-69, was named the 2013 Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year by the Disabled American Veterans. In 1969, he lost his sight at age 22 while flying a combat mission. Photo by Ashleigh Bryant. (click for larger version)
Nor did he follow the self-destructive path of drug and alcohol addiction or allow himself to be consumed by bitterness and darkness.
Todd accepted the hand he was dealt, moved forward and diligently worked toward building himself a life of independence, professional success and personal happiness.
Forty-four years later, he has a loving family and is a well-respected, accomplished professor of business law and American legal studies at Rochester College in Rochester Hills.
"I've got a great wife, good kids and a very good life," he said.
Todd, 66, is a role model for other veterans whose lives were forever changed by a wound on the battlefield.
It's no wonder he was named the 2013 Outstanding Disabled Veteran of the Year by the Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
Todd, who serves as the Judge Advocate for DAV Chapter 19 in Berkley, will be formally presented the award in August at the DAV's annual convention in Orlando, Florida.
"I'm very proud of it," said Todd, who, during his military career, was awarded the Purple Heart, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star, Distinguished Flying Cross for Valor and 17 combat air medals, one of which has a 'V' for valor.
Todd's story begins as a U.S. Army pilot flying a Bell AH-1G Huey Cobra attack helicopter during the Vietnam War.
In 1969, Todd, who was a chief warrant officer, was flying a typical mission.
"When our ground troops got in trouble, we came and shot at the bad guys (i.e. North Vietnamese troops), then the bad guys would run away," Todd said. "Most of the time they'd run away. If there were more than 100 or so, then they'd stay and fight.
"That's what happened when I was wounded. Instead of 100, there were about 500, so they had bigger (antiaircraft) guns and more of them."
During the attack, Todd was hit by a bullet that went "right through my nose."
"It came across my left cheekbone and sort of just took the nose off," he said. "Then the flak and stuff went into my eyes. I should have died."
Fortunately, Todd was transported back to the airfield in about six minutes and a doctor immediately started working on him.
"Had it been longer, I would have bled to death," he said.
Once he was stable, Todd was transported to Japan to receive further treatment.
"I was on the critical list for about six weeks," he said. "I had a major surgery every week just to keep me alive."
In the beginning, Todd believed he "might be able to get some sight back."
But as the weeks wore on, he had to face the fact that his vision was gone for good.
"When it finally dawned on me, I was a little down," Todd said. "I couldn't fly anymore. I couldn't drive my sports car. I couldn't ride my motorcycle. I wondered what I was going to do."
When asked to describe his level of blindness, Todd, who's an active member of the Oxford Lions Club, replied, "I can see when the sun's out. That's about it."
Several factors helped Todd cope with his new situation.
One was the fact that he was still alive and his mind was fully intact.
"I always felt I was just plain blessed and lucky," Todd said. "I was hit with a decent-sized bullet and I still had my brain. I always felt lucky that I had my brain."
Two, he accepted personal responsibility for what happened.
Todd was the team leader during this mission and he admitted he was "probably a little reckless."
"I had made the decision to attack the target," he said. "No one told me (to do it). I was going to have to live with it."
Unlike an enlisted man who's just following orders, Todd said he was "in control of (his) destiny."
He noted that the only medal he received for that mission was the Purple Heart. There were no medals for bravery, nor does he believe he deserved one for that mission.
Because of that he "was never really bitter about" losing his sight.
The third factor was all the fellow wounded soldiers he met while recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. in 1970. He said there were a lot of guys his age in the same or worse shape than him.
"We just supported each other," he said.
He also found religion and "that certainly helped."
Thanks to all those things, Todd decided "I just needed to get on with my life."
So, he told himself, "Let's get to work."
Todd admitted he was "extremely ornery" about losing his sight and that helped fuel his desire to lead an independent life.
His parents were planning to build an addition to their home in Gaylord, Michigan so he could come live with them.
"I said I'm not going to come home and sit around and watch TV," Todd said.
Todd went to work as the national coordinator for Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, a group created by President Richard Nixon's administration to defend the Vietnam war and counter the claims of anti-war activists.
For about a year-and-a-half, Todd gave speeches, did radio and television editorials and debated anti-war activists.
"I believed in the war," he said. "I was basically supporting what Nixon was doing."
His work earned him Excellence in Political Communication awards from the Freedom Foundation in 1971 and 1972.
Todd noted at the time, he was particularly upset that anti-war groups were claiming U.S. troops were committing "massive atrocities" and that "everybody was a doped-up child-killer." He said some massacres happened and some soldiers were prosecuted for them, but "it was not widespread."
"It was not the norm," he said. "I resented the picture they were painting to achieve their political ends."
Following his involvement in war-related politics, Todd went on to marry his wife Joyce in August 1973 and have two daughters.
"I met her on a blind date, believe it or not," he said.
In 1977-78, Todd worked as a lobbyist in Washington D.C. As the National Legislative Director of the Blinded Veterans Association, he authored and helped pass legislation that allows the spouses and dependents of permanently and totally disable veterans who die to receive benefits.
In 1976, Todd graduated from the University of Michigan. He went on to graduate from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1979 with a Juris Doctor degree. For the past 34 years, he's educated and shaped young minds at Rochester College.
But the classroom isn't the only area where Todd has felt a sense of accomplishment. He completely rebuilt the two-story home on Ora Rd. in Oxford Township where he and his wife have lived for about two years now.
Most folks would probably marvel at the idea of a blind man doing construction work, but for Todd, it's simply a matter of doing things a little differently than everyone else.
"I just never looked at it as a handicap," he said. "I just knew that I'd have to do things more slowly, more carefully."
To the wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Todd offered this advice – "If you're alive, even with an injury, look at it in the largest sense that God has something bigger and better for you."
"That's one thing that drove me," he said.
Todd also advised these veterans to not "just sit around" and draw their benefits.
"I just could never do that," he said.
He urged them to find a job, go back to school, do volunteer work, do something productive with their lives.
Todd advised wounded veterans to "take advantage of whatever the VA (U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs) is offering them."
"The VA is a very tough bureaucracy," he said. "On the other hand, if you break through, there are good people there and good programs. Veterans groups like the DAV help a lot by fighting to get guys compensation, training, adjustments."
He also urged injured veterans to seek support from their families and God.
"Don't look to drugs or alcohol," he said. "That's the quickest way to lose it."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.