06 August, 2005

A Tale of Two Fathers

As you know if you’re a regular reader, the experiences and blogging of injured CPT Chuck Ziegenfuss have been an inspiration for the project we've been developing, as Chuck and I discovered we had a shared vision of providing voice-to-text software to any injured soldier who could benefit from it. It turns out we share more than that...

This morning I received an email from Chuck in which he wrote of his hope that the project could be named after his father. He wrote with great affection and humility about a man he obviously respected and loved very much. Here’s the story...

Sergeant First Class (SFC) William V. Ziegenfuss was a career U.S. Army medic, and served in Viet Nam. After seventeen years in the army he was given a medical discharge because the ravages of Agent Orange-related cancer in his digestive tract made him undeployable. Throughout his life he was devoted to the army and his fellow soldiers, helping them in every way he could. Sixteen years after his army career was over, his final gift was his personal collection of over 100 videos to soldiers and veterans in the cancer ward to break up what he knew from personal experience was the monotony of surgeries, therapies, and chemotherapy treatments. He was obviously a very loving and generous man.

This touched me because I have been remembering my father lately, too. He enlisted and volunteered for Viet Nam as a surgical tech. He was placed in the hospital in Da Nang, but due to some administrative restrictions/foul-ups, he ending up fulfilling his last months of enlistment working at Walter Reed, where Chuck is now recuperating. He went on to become a Christian minister and was dearly beloved by his congregants.

To my knowledge, no one ever connected it to any exposure to Agent Orange, but my father contracted leukemia and died from a related condition when he was 34 years old and my sister and I were both under the age of twelve. Though he pastored just two small congregations, his memorial service was scheduled for the largest church in town, and on that day the facility was packed with people of all religions and walks of life. Even the local gas station attendant knew and loved him, once saying to him in my presence, "No way you’re a minister...you’re just a regular guy!

Anyone who knew my father will tell you what an extraordinary man he was. A man of great social gifts with the ability to be at home in any environment, he was known for his humor, generosity, and compassion, among other laudable traits. And the most important thing he taught me was the value and dignity of EVERY human being. From the most unbelievably humble shack of the poorest family in our neighborhood to the Vietnamese war-bride next door, to the finest house in town, he taught me to see past the outside and recognize the deepest human needs and connections that make us all equal under the surface.

And so it hit me yesterday that this project would have been "right up his alley." He had a genius IQ, and so the curiosity-filled geek in him would’ve reveled in the mechanisms of the voice-to-text software. But the loving and compassionate person who recognized the humanity that binds us together would’ve loved the idea of using that software to reconnect wounded soldiers with the world around them. He would have instinctively understood the value of the project and been its greatest champion. The force of his amazing personal skills would’ve been put to work gathering volunteers and emptying pockets; he probably could’ve talked anyone into donating anything.

But like Chuck’s father, he only impacts the world from a distance now. And like Chuck’s father, his impact resonates through his children. So today, the children of two great men are working together to accomplish something that both men would surely be doing themselves if we were still blessed with their presence on this earth.

So, here's to a project in memory of two great men, to the benefit of many more of the same... May they all live forever in the hearts of those who know their stories!


Don't forget! August 10 is the big day!

We still need some help, though! We’ve got the first part of the name, now--the “SFC William V. Ziegenfuss” part. But the name "The SFC William Ziegenfuss Laptop Computer Project" just doesn’t have any panache; that last part needs some work! ;) Please help us!

UPDATE: As of 8/10/05 we are up and running at Soldiers' Angels