It happened one warm morning in May when Michael Coleman was a long, long way from home.
The 19-year-old Marine private from Spokane stooped to gently remove a bomb Viet Cong soldiers had set on a bridge a little north of Da Nang.
The explosion blew him 75 feet backwards; yet somehow, Coleman stayed conscious.
Temporarily blinded by the flash, Coleman lay in the dirt and listened to the frantic sounds of medics calling in a helicopter. He felt the heat of the whirling blades as the aircraft landed, and he told himself to stay calm during an agonizing flight to a hospital ship.
It was May 18, 1969. The last day Coleman would have hands.
Speed forward 26 years - to another day in May.
Were Coleman a character in the usual cliche-ridden Vietnam movie of the week, you can bet he’d be typecast as a bitter loser whose nights are shattered by horrific flashbacks of his hands disintegrating before his eyes.
Or maybe he’d be the delusional recluse who lives in the forest and bays at the moon.
He certainly wouldn’t be the Michael Coleman who travels the world as an IBM division head. The man scheduled to give a commencement speech at Gonzaga University’s Sunday graduation ceremonies and then receive an honorary doctor of laws degree.
Who would swallow that?
The truth, however, is that Coleman is like the vast majority of Vietnam vets. He is not some troubled Oliver Stone stereotype stuck forever in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
He is a man who served, returned and got on with living.
“I don’t believe Vietnam needs to be the only defining moment in your life,” says Coleman, 45, who enlisted in the Marines with three of his buddies shortly after they had graduated from Spokane high schools in 1968.
Two of Coleman’s pals died in the war, something that still weighs heavily on his heart.
“I don’t mean that you harbor no feelings about Vietnam,” he adds. “There are a thousand things in a year to remind you of it. But it’s a lot less important to me than, say, the birth of my first” child.
Coleman is a hero, although he will cringe at that label. His refusal to surrender to such a devastating disability is an undeniable act of courage.
“I never felt that any substantial part of me ever existed in my hands,” he explains. “There’s a lot that makes up a person, but it has to do with the spirit, your mind and soul.”
Kathy Nielson was in the first grade when her big brother came back from the war with mechanical arms.
He went with her to first grade for show-and-tell. During a trip to Disneyland, she says, he stood on the pirate ship and pretended to be Capt. Hook.
“He’s been an inspiration to all of us,” she says softly.
Coleman married Fran, his high school sweetheart. He earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s in business administration from Gonzaga University.
Searching for work in 1975, Coleman borrowed 200 bucks from his mother-in-law, drove to San Francisco and landed an entry-level job as an IBM systems engineer.
Twenty years later, Coleman is a top executive for one of the world’s blue-chip corporations. A Connecticut resident, he heads the PC Servers division, responsible for development and marketing worldwide.
Don’t kid yourself. The struggle for a man without hands to be accepted in a white-collar world at times must have been gut-wrenching.
Yet, Coleman downplays any suggestion of that. He is fortified by unyielding faith in himself and the ability to see the best in others.
“When you meet me, you can’t ignore the fact I don’t have hands,” he says. “But people quickly focus on what I know or what I have to say, rather than on any aspect of my physical being.”