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‘Never Let a Good Scar Go to Waste’

Harsh reality of war is common bond as Vietnam vet strives to help more recent troops discover their reward

Dave Roever doesn’t have any fancy letters after his name or degrees on his wall. His counseling credentials are measured in blood, scar tissue and bone grafts.

He went to Vietnam in 1969 as part of a riverboat crew—lean, muscled and confident from Naval Special Warfare—as a recently married 21-year-old who yearned to be a minister. He came back after 14 months in military hospitals a one-eyed, hideously burned, insecure, self-conscious, post-suicidal—in his words—“beast.”

Fortunately, Roever (pronounced REE’-ver) was grounded by his faith and his bride, Brenda, who encouraged him when he needed it; provided a self-pity antidote when he needed that, too; and loved him unconditionally throughout. During his recovery, he discovered that his ordeal served a higher purpose. His calling was still to minister, but his flock was another lost generation of injured war veterans. His message was one of acceptance of their scars and lost limbs and psychological wounds, and a desire to move forward with their lives.

The dirt road to Eagles Summit Ranch is largely unmarked. Travel about 15 miles southeast of Junction, take a right and follow the dirt road past the gnarled cedars, the deer blinds and the scrubby brush that marks the end of the Hill Country and the start of West Texas, and you’re there, at a large iron gate flanked by cast eagles. Beyond these gates, the Dave Roever Foundation uses a multifaceted approach based mostly on faith and public speaking to help wounded war veterans confront, accept and move past the physical and mental trauma they’ve suffered.

The work is intensely private and personal, say those who’ve been through it, very much like a 12-step program. Except it doesn’t have 12 steps. It has however many it takes. And though it doesn’t have an established set of steps for recovery, it does share one fundamental truth with programs like Alcoholics Anonymous: It takes someone who’s been through hell to rescue another from it.

Without a Scar

A M34 WP smoke grenade is a particularly insidious weapon. Its charge is white phosphorus and—unlike a fragmentation gre­nade, which destroys with shrapnel, or a standard explosive charge, which kills with blunt force—it burns. Vegetation, grass, wood, munitions, flesh—whatever it gloms onto, it burns. It even burns underwater.

Roever had learned to use such a weapon. As the son of a hard-edged minister in Mission, he had grown up committed to three things: tinkering with cars, Christianity and a pretty local girl named Brenda. He enrolled in a Bible college, but when his grades dipped and he received his draft notice, he figured he owed it to his country to serve. Expecting that serving on a ship in a land war would be safer, he enlisted in the Navy.

Roever showed an aptitude for weapons, learning how to deploy nuclear missiles, and was assigned to Naval Special Warfare training and, ultimately, to wearing the black beret of the Brown Water Black Beret, an elite riverboat flotilla that patrolled the winding rivers of Southeast Asia.

“I knew I wasn’t coming home,” Roever says. “It didn’t look dangerous because we didn’t have a high KIA (killed in action) rate. Instead, we were listed as MIA (missing in action) because when a boat went down, they didn’t recover the body.”

On July 26, 1969, on the Vam Co Tay River, Roever was on patrol when he pulled the pin on a white phosphorous grenade, cocking his arm behind his right ear to throw it toward an area he suspected was hiding a munitions cache. His plan was to start a fire, maybe destroy the arms or just create some smoke for cover. The grenade was still in his right hand when it detonated. And the man who had promised his bride—to ease her fears—that he’d return from war “without a scar” began to burn.

The fire incinerated his ear, his hair and parts of his scalp. It ravaged his face, destroyed his right eye and eyelid; split his right hand in half and tore a hole in his chest through which he could see his own heart beating beneath the thin layer of flesh that was left.

Later, a forensics expert told Roever that a sniper hidden behind him likely had aimed at his head but hit the grenade as Roever drew it back. The grenade that seemed to have ruined his life also likely saved it.

Worth Saving

In the field hospital, he heard two doctors argue over whether it was worth trying to save him. At the base hospital, he watched the wives of other badly wounded men recoil at their sight and remove their wedding rings as a prelude to divorce. He weighed his wounds against the pain of the treatment and decided he wanted out. Fighting the pain, he reached for his intravenous tubes, yanked and waited to die. “Then I started getting hungry,” he says. “I had pulled out my feeding tubes. I realized I didn’t want to die. I wanted to eat.”

When Brenda came to visit, she didn’t recoil. Roever apologized that he would never be good-looking again. Brenda quipped, “You never were that good-looking.” Roever realized he was one of the lucky ones.

In the ensuing years, he built a career as a motivational speaker and minister and raised a family, including son Matt and daughter Kimberly, despite dire warnings from doctors that the trauma from the burns had almost definitely left him sterile.

A Renewed Purpose

Then came September 11, 2001. America went to war again, and a new generation of young men and women would be going off to battle—and coming home horribly damaged. “I felt my life had meaning again,” Roever says. “God took the experience of my life and gave me a purpose. Never let a good scar go to waste.”

Formed in 1991, the Dave Roever Foundation uses two Eagles Summit Ranches—the other is one near Westcliffe, Colorado—to host Operation Warrior RECONnect programs. Nearly all those attending have traumatic brain injury (TBI) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although Roever’s group only recognizes the first three letters of the latter.

“We drop the ‘D,’ ” says Kathy Wampler, Roever’s top aide. “We tell them, ‘You are not disordered.’ Disordered means you are reacting oddly to something. Their reaction is natural to what they’ve been through.”

The group setting is designed to put a damper on self-pity and maximize hope, the idea being there’s always somebody else worse off, in one way or another. And Roever is there to play the trump card. Says Wampler, “The soldiers’ reaction is, ‘He knows how I feel. His scars are on the outside. Mine are on the inside. Here’s a man who understands pain.’ ”

Straight Talk

“Nobody speaks to a vet like a vet,” says Matt Roever, an ordained minister who assists his father.

Nobody laughs at a vet’s misfortune like the vet himself, either. Robert “B.J.” Jackson was in the first class at the Colorado ranch in 2007. His Army unit was ambushed in Baghdad in August 2003, and he was badly burned and lost both his legs below the knee. The other vets call him “Stumps.” Once, at a speech both men attended, Roever was making the point that a lost limb doesn’t require lessened expectations. “What is a leg worth?” Roever asked, rhetorically. From the back of the room, Jackson held up one of his prostheses. “I’ll sell mine right now,” he said enthusiastically.

Jackson didn’t fall into self-pity after he awoke in the hospital after the ambush. Learning he was already being given antidepressants even before he regained consciousness, he angrily made the doctors stop. But he saved his real anger for the staff psychologist, who had never seen action. “I asked him, ‘No disrespect, but where were you deployed?’ ” Jackson recalls. “At the time I was angry. I wanted someone who’d been there, done that.”

Shortly after his return, Jackson started working with the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes. He poured himself into the outreach, helping others even as he ignored himself. Then he met Roever in 2005. Jackson invited Roever to speak at his events. Roever invited Jackson to be in the first class at Eagles Summit. “It was an emotional roller coaster. We would cry one minute, laugh the next,” Jackson recalls. “He was the first person who told it like it needed to be told.”

That way is blunt, even to the point of being harsh—though not unnecessarily so.

Jackson exemplifies the approach. He is wearing a pinstriped suit coat, white shirt, tie—and shorts. He wears shorts everywhere. He wants people to notice his prosthetic legs, even having them emblazoned with cartoon characters to disarm wary children.

Meeting the Challenge

The program is a visceral experience. The vets fish, mountain bike and ride horseback, if able, and shoot guns—even AK-47s, the same weapon of choice for the forces they fought in the Middle East. They are allowed one bullet at a time, and they fire only under strict supervision.

All wounds, visible or not, don’t heal the same. That’s the challenge here. Aside from what they’ve seen and done, this generation’s vets face the puzzle of understanding where they fit into history. Roever points out that World War II veterans know what they accomplished. They crushed Nazi tyranny, stymied Japanese imperialism and ended evil genocides. They saw Germany and Japan surrender. They won.

Vietnam veterans weren’t left with a clear purpose or resolution from a highly unpopular war and were treated not at all like heroes when they returned home. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have more public support, if no more purpose or resolution. “As humans, we live for sacrifice and reward,” Roever says. “What if there’s no reward?”

It’s Roever’s mission now to help the veterans find a reward, or at least a footing where they can find one. Ask Roever about success stories, and he’s guarded. He tells about a female combat medic, whose traumatic experiences drove her to a suicide attempt. He tells how she came through the program and returned for another tour of duty in a combat zone.

“We don’t win them all,” he says. “We don’t even try to put a percentage on it.”

Then Roever tells of another veteran who’s been coming for sessions since 2008. “We can’t reach him,” Roever says sadly. He keeps a photo of the vet in his office. The vet tells Roever he goes to sleep with ghosts every night. Roever tells him that’s his choice. Sometimes he’ll call Roever at 2 a.m. and ask him for a reason not to pull the trigger. “I won’t rest until I reach him,” Roever says. “I still have hope. As long as he’s got a breath and I’ve got a breath, I won’t give up. I’ll keep telling him the truth. The day I soften the message is the day he gives up.”

Some night soon, maybe tonight, that phone will ring again. Dave Roever, scars and all, will be there to answer it.

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Mark Wangrin is an Austin writer.