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Vietnam vet weathers health challenges, but soldiers on
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Vietnam vet weathers health challenges, but soldiers on

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John Miles survived much more than just a one-year tour of duty as an Army airborne infantryman in the Vietnam War.

In the past decade, Miles has survived prostate cancer brought about by wartime exposure to the chemical defoliant Agent Orange, and a pair of strokes—the second of which left him partially paralyzed on the left side and confined to bed most of the time.

Not that Miles doesn’t have help with his many challenges.

The veteran, whose given name is Lawrence Philip Miles, now lives in his home in Pelham’s Reach subdivision off Evans Street in the town of Culpeper with his younger sister, Joanne Miles-Mack, who helps provide much of the continuous care Miles now requires.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs helps Miles with the costs of living, housing, health care and therapy.

Hero’s Bridge, a private nonprofit that works with veterans over age 65, also sends volunteers to visit Miles and help with his therapy, Mack said.

John’s sister found Hero’s Bridge while researching support organizations in the area. She reached out to help John stay socialized and connected to people. He is now part of the Hero’s Bridge Battle Buddy program, and looks forward to the company of his buddy.

“He’s a remarkable man, what he’s had to deal with, very courageous,” said Aimee O’Grady, a community outreach coordinator with Hero’s Bridge, which is based in Warrenton.

“After his stroke two years ago, he’s still trying to adjust,” O’Grady said. “He enjoys visitors, and talking about his life.”

With few opportunities in his native Orange County, Miles enlisted in 1967 at age 17. During his Vietnam tour from 1969 to 1970, Specialist 5 Miles served in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, 82nd Airborne, known as the Skytroopers. He fought in numerous engagements, often going into combat by helicopter assault, according to a citation from the Vietnam Veterans of America. He received the Bronze Star for merit, and an Army Commendation Medal for Valor, returning home in 1970.

Now, Miles leaves the house about once each week for doctor and other appointments for his health-care needs.

“I am 100 percent, totally permanently disabled,” Miles said. “I don’t consider myself a survivor; I am a survivor. I spent 12 months in the jungles of Vietnam. I slept outside on the ground, with nothing but sky as cover.”

While Miles was not physically wounded during his service, he was exposed to Agent Orange, which he said has caused numerous health problems later in life. He also suffered an extended illness while serving in Southeast Asia.

“I wasn’t wounded, but I left a lot of blood over there in those rice paddies,” he said. “I was sick the first six months I was there. I had some type of parasite.”

He also lost his best Army buddy, who stepped on a land mine while they were serving together in the country.

In June 1970, Miles returned to the states and once again began working with horses, something he and family members had done during his youth growing up in the town of Orange.

After his wartime service, Miles spent 42 years working with horses in rural New Jersey, mainly working for Sullivan Davis, a well-known trainer of show horses and the operator of Hanover Farm Stables.

Miles’ airborne training proved useful when riding. Once when being thrown by a horse, he remembered his Army training to keep moving when hitting the ground after a jump to lessen the impact.

Throughout his life, Miles has loved the outdoors and riding horses. Forever an equestrian, he still enjoys equine events, most recently the 100th Pony Show in Warrenton.

“My grandfather used to train horses,” Miles said. “We would walk up to his barns every day and feed and walk the horses. That’s how I got interested. They’re beautiful animals, but I worked with the wrong end of them. I used to have to clean up after them.”

It was while living and working in New Jersey that Miles suffered his first stroke. That’s when he decided to return home to Virginia.

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“I came home to die,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it. I wanted to be back home with my family. I’d been gone so long, I didn’t even know half of them.”

Miles said he did recover, and was living in an apartment in Orange when the second stroke hit.

“I had walked five miles and came home. I was stepping up into the shower, and that’s the last thing I remember until I woke up in the hospital,” he said.

As a veteran, Miles in entitled to a monthly check from the VA and federal help with some of the costs of his care, Mack said. The VA provided a wheelchair ramp for the entrance to his home and helps pay for his weekday in-home care.

The VA also sends a van to the house to pick Miles up when he has appointments with doctors or at the VA hospital in Richmond.

“He’s a true patriot, someone we can all value and appreciate,” O’Grady said.

Miles said he is grateful for the help he receives from his sister and his weekday caregiver, Jamia Hackley.

“I’m thankful for both of them, although I don’t always act like it,” he said.

“I don’t want nobody to give me nothing,” Miles said. “I just want what I’ve earned.”

Miles turned 70 in August. Since his second stroke two years ago, he has been unable to put weight on his left leg, leaving him unable to walk.

He spends most of his time in bed in his room, beneath an electronic lift that helps him move from his bed into his wheelchair.

Using the pulley system to get out of bed is a painful process.

“I’m a 240-pound man and without help, Joanne would have to try to do it all,” he said.

Mack has her own health issues. A retired nurse, Mack, 67, said she had a heart transplant 10 years ago, and has undergone several neck and back surgeries.

Miles said it’s difficult to have to stay in bed, watching through the window as people walk by on the sidewalks outside his home.

“I used to walk 15 miles a day, before the stroke,” he said. “We walked everywhere when we were young. It’s a terrible feeling to just sit here and watch people walking by.”

Keeping himself going often is not easy, he admitted.

“Just by the grace of God,” he said.Volunteer with Hero’s Bridge {span class=”print_trim”}Hero’s Bridge is dedicated to serving elderly veterans, age 65 and older, through six distinct programs wherever they call home, at no expense to them or their families. Know of a veteran who needs help? Call 540-341-5378 or visit www.herosbridge.org.

Hero’s Bridge invites individuals, couples and families to volunteer, provide support and social interaction to veterans.

Building on the concept of hands-on farm therapy, Hero’s Bridge has launched a program to bring veterans to area farms, including Mountain Vista Farm in Amissville.

Many studies have shown that gardening and being outdoors powerfully affect one’s health.

The simple act of getting your hands dirty can cut anxiety and lift your mood, and interacting with animals also has proven health benefits, Hero’s Bridge said. Farms combine both, offering an enriching, relaxing and pleasant environment, the group said.

Scheduled monthly at Mountain Vista Farm, farm-therapy events will resume in the spring and are scheduled monthly. Email info@herosbridge.org to learn more.

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