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Veteran’s Survival In Vietnam Inspires Lifetime Of Healing And Hope

William Haneke
William Haneke (Photo: Louise Ricks / VPM Digital)

Virginia resident William Haneke arrived in Vietnam in 1968, the deadliest year for U.S. soldiers. The U.S. Army Captain defied death multiple times. His critical injuries would take him on a new journey, focusing on patient advocacy and helping other amputees. In our series Vietnam: Virginia Remembers, Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Please note, there are some graphic descriptions in this story.

Learn More: Find out about Families of the Wounded Fund and William Haneke’s memoir of his experiences in Vietnam, Trust Not.

William Haneke was ready for a long career in the U.S. military. The West Point graduate was following in the footsteps of his father, who served in World War II, South Korea and Vietnam.

William Haneke: My mother jokingly said that I went into the infantry because I didn't have enough sense to come in the rain and she'd probably right to this day.

The U.S. Army Captain arrived in Vietnam on July 1st, 1968.

Haneke: And the day the plane sat down in Vietnam, I was right by the door and as they opened the door the blast of hot air hit me and I could barely get my breath. It was about 110 degrees.

During his deployment, Haneke’s adrenaline rose many times, during explosions so close his bunk shook, when a water buffalo charged him, feeling his hands tremble after his first combat operation. The night of November 12th, he also felt anxious, but it was more acute.

Haneke: If you think something bad is going to happen, and you think it’s going to be a particular thing, go with your feeling because nine times out of ten you’re right. I knew it the night before, I sensed something bad was going to happen the next day.

Haneke was in the southern province of Binh Thuan, Vietnam. He tried to go on patrol that day, but says his commanding officer wanted him to help with a task - moving aviation fuel. As they pushed a 55 gallon drum up a sandy hill, Haneke says a North Vietnamese soldier detonated a mine.

Haneke: He set it off and it blew me about 80 feet through the air.

Haneke was thrown onto a barbed wire fence. His carotid artery was severed.

Haneke: In the meantime I'd also lost the leg. This leg was partially blown off above the knee. I had lost half my other foot. I had an extremely bad head injury. I was totally blind.

Haneke’s jaw and part of his skull were shattered and he briefly lost consciousness. When he came to, he said a prayer.

Haneke: You know, a very short but very sincere prayer and that was oh God help me. And within seconds there was a voice that talked to me and the voice told me “Turn your head to the left and have faith for I'll see you through this.”

By turning his head, Haneke partially constricted the bleeding. It also helped open his blocked air passages. A helicopter also happened to be close by. Medics kept him alive as he was transported to several field hospitals. When he finally got to main surgical center, the 24th Evacuation Hospital, he was in bad shape.

Haneke: And as they brought me in off the chopper into the triage area I had no discernible pulse and no signs of respiration.

Haneke was declared dead and given last rites. He was covered with a blanket and pushed behind a partition, an IV still attached. He heard the voice again.

Haneke: He said give them a sign that you're alive and have faith for I will see you through this.

Because of a tracheotomy, Haneke couldn’t talk. Using all the strength he had, Haneke thrashed on the stretcher. The metal IV stand and bottles of blood crashed to the floor.

Haneke: And a nurse came over and said “Hey doc, this guy's got more life and than we thought. Let's work on him now.” So I felt him pick up the stretcher and take me into the operating room and start cutting my clothing off and then I blacked out.

William Haneke was critically wounded in Vietnam. Doctors would perform more than 200 operations, but Haneke fully recovered and went on to have a long career in health care and patient advocacy. (Photo: Catherine Komp)

Multiple surgeons operated on Haneke for 15 hours. More than 90% of his body was wounded. Vascular MDs repaired his major arteries, making Haneke one of the first patients to survive a vein graft that became the procedure widely used today. Neurosurgeons tended to extensive facial and cranial wounds. Other doctors addressed internal injuries and amputations. Recovery, including regaining sight in his remaining eye, would take years and more than 200 operations.

Haneke: And it has been said by a number of people that I was probably the most severely wounded guy that lived in the Vietnam era. And so I am very thankful for all the progressive treatment. And I mean it's just it got to be a regular thing that my wife would be there fighting for my needs at that point in time. And the doctor to say well you know we're not sure how to treat him because we've never had anybody live that has these problems. And she said well he did, he has lived. And so it's now up to you to find out what to do to treat him, to try to help him to stabilize him and help him be able to get back to a stable life and be able to become a productive citizen again soon.

Haneke says he’s always been a pretty positive person, which helped him through recovery - even when he reconciled that he couldn’t return to active duty.

Haneke: Being depressed, being down on myself, being down on what happened to me is not going to change and it will not put the leg back. It will not restore my sight, it will not take away all the injuries that I've had. So the best thing I can do is make the most of it and try to learn what my weaknesses are and be able to try to overcome that, because my mission is to survive and go back and get productive again and be able to take care of my wife and family.

Captain William Haneke at his Army medical retirement ceremony. (Image from Trust Not, Haneke’s memoir.)

There were days, says Haneke, when his doctors were cynical - telling him all the things he’d never do.

Haneke: The first thing they said well you'll never set up again. Well every time they would say that I would get mad and say I'm going to prove you wrong.

Haneke always had an interest in medicine. While deployed in Vietnam, he’d help the medics whenever he could, and worked in nearby villages to eradicate bacterial diseases. During his long recovery, he keenly observed and asked a lot of questions. He realized his future could be as a patient advocate.

Haneke: I knew that I wouldn't be able to be a practicing physician or a surgeon but hospital administration was a very real possibility. So I had to fight the V.A. to get them to approve me, pay my educational benefits in that field because they were trying to say you have no background in medicine, you’re not interested or qualified. So in spite of that I was able to go and get my master's degree in health care administration at MCV.

Haneke spent 30 years in the medical field, his first job as assistant director of the hospital at the Medical College of Virginia. One of his responsibilities was the ER; at the time Haneke says there were six or seven emergency rooms in different buildings.

Haneke: And I mean the responsibility as a hospital of being sure that people get to the right emergency room was overwhelming. So I got involved in the planning for what was to be the new hospital and we set up a triage center and then had the specialty services radiating off that, so one section was medical emergencies, another was surgical emergencies and pediatric emergencies and psychiatric emergencies and OBGYN emergencies. So it really worked out well and that's the way that they do it today.

Haneke developed improved coordination between rehab departments, where there was little communication. In the burn unit, he worked with doctors and nurses to identify and eliminate the sources of cross-infections, dramatically increasing patient survival rates.

Haneke: When I first got with the burn service back in 1974, the chances of a patient going in there with extensive burns surviving were probably 99 percent against you. The chance of surviving was not good. By the time we got finished cleaning up the unit and changing the procedures to where it was a very infection control-oriented, we were able to turn that down to about 45-43 percent.

Next came a job at Children’s Hospital, then a relocation to Louisville, Kentucky to help set up a cancer center. Haneke came back to Virginia, did some consulting on managed care and helped with rehab services at MCV and McGuire Veterans Hospital, including organizing amputee support groups. He’s been on test panels for prosthetic limbs and provided feedback to physical medicine experts.

Haneke: And the current group that's coming back from the War on Terror, these guys are young, they're active, they're involved. The limb makers and the physical medicine people are finally listening to them find out what you want to do with your life.

Haneke says his first limb felt like an anchor, now he has a 7 pound titanium model with computer chips.

Haneke: And what that does is they can easily adjust it so that it walks more like a normal limb. And I joke about it, I used to go in and have extensive conversations with my limb maker. He didn't talk to me anymore. I go in there he opens up his laptop and he talks at the computer chips in my knee and ankle (laughs).

Haneke points out that veterans with today’s prosthetic limbs are skiing, running races, and climbing mountains.

Haneke: It's amazing to see how resilient the human body is and what if you give the right appliances to these people what they can do with it.

Patient advocacy isn’t just about the person who was hurt, says Haneke. Traumatic injury affects spouses and children. He witnessed this during his own recovery, when his wife spent a few months at Walter Reed Hospital. She had to pay for a place to stay and the apartment back in Richmond.

Haneke: She also had you know meals to pay for up there and all kinds of other incidental things that was not being reimbursed other than my meager Captain's pay which didn't amount to a hill of beans as far as trying to live in Washington D.C. on the economy. So I had seen plenty of that with other patients and their families.

As casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan increased, more patients were coming to McGuire VA Hospital. Their spouses drove from Texas, Nebraska and other states, often leaving jobs to do so. Haneke and other veterans would reach in their pockets to help them out.

Haneke: Our wives would bake a batch of cookies or a pizza or something like that and we’d take that over to them, [we realized] that this isn't just going to cut it because these people are going to be here by the nature of the injuries, a lot of them had amputations, a lot of them had traumatic brain injuries. They're going to be patients there for quite some time.

In 2014, Bill Haneke, Center, (Families of the Wounded Fund Co-founder and Board Member) along with Gen. Mattias, featured speaker, and Paul Galanti (FOTWF Board Member) along with a patient, his father (behind patient) and other attendees in an honor ceremony at the annual FOTWF fundraiser held at the Marine Museum in Quantico Virginia. (Photo courtesy William Haneke)

Haneke and a group of Virginia veterans saw a need and an opportunity. In 2005, they launched Families of the Wounded Fund. The non-profit provides $7,500 grants to pay for lodging, rent and car payments, food, school supplies  - whatever families need while a loved one who was wounded in combat recovers at McGuire and Fort Belvoir.

Haneke: And it's just it's one of those things that we're able to help and at a critical time. I'm kind of the poster child, I have called on probably 90-95 percent of these patients which I enjoy the fact that I am able to give them hope and demonstrate the fact that I am a recovered traumatic wound case and that we have an excellent staff of doctors, nurses and specialists over on that poly trauma unit.

Haneke, who also serves on the state Board of Veterans Services, says 100% of donations go to families; the non-profit doesn’t advertise, all board members are volunteers and financial services are donated by Village Bank. Since the group launched, it’s helped 700 families from across the country.

Haneke: Well I'd like to think that I've had a positive impact on a number of people, that's my intent. I am happy to work with them and people ask a lot of good questions and if I don't have the answers, I'm happy to find people who can get them. Because I think it's such an important part of getting people from their injury or their illness through the rehab process and back to a productive life because that's what it's all about.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.