Hanging In There
One of Paralyzed Veterans of America's oldest living members recounts his interesting life and wants other injured veterans to know they can have one, too.
Jerry Fesenmeyer remains thankful just to be alive.
One of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) oldest members, the 90-year-old Marine Corps veteran has lived through some wild times.
He’s survived a surprise attack from a Japanese sniper, made it through a handful of car accidents from learning how to drive after his spinal-cord injury and figured out how to maneuver through the last seven-plus decades in a wheelchair.
“I’m still hanging in there,” says Fesenmeyer, an incomplete paraplegic and double amputee who’s been a PVA member since before the organization started in 1947. He became a part of what would become PVA at Birmingham Hospital in Van Nuys, Calif., one of the original groups that met in Chicago in 1947 to formally create PVA.
In fact, up until 10 years ago, Fesenmeyer was still pushing a manual wheelchair. His first wheelchair had a wooden frame and bamboo back on it, then he moved on to an old E&J wheelchair, which was heavy. He admits he stayed with a regular push wheelchair because he didn’t want to change. Finally, time caught up with him and for the past decade, Fesenmeyer has used a power wheelchair.
“It’s amazing. I started out in one of those old bamboo chairs, wooden and bamboo chairs,” says Fesenmeyer, who lives in San Benito, Texas, near the Mexican border. “Now here I come full circle with this [chair] with motors.”
Growing Up Fast
A World War II veteran, a skinny Fesenmeyer grew up on a farm in Shambaugh, Iowa. He slopped hogs, milked and fed cows, hauled horses with a cultivator and other chores. His father, Lester, drove the tractor and when they needed water, they pumped it out of a well. At 18 years old, Fesenmeyer enlisted into service and joined the Marine Corps. Compared to farm life, military life was so much easier.
“Combat was the easiest thing I’ve ever been in. All you do was put on patrols and stuff like that,” Fesenmeyer says. “I’d volunteer for every patrol.”
During those patrols, he served as a designated automatic rifleman, meaning he ranked second-in-command next to the team leader, as their First Division prepared to invade Okinawa, Japan.
“I was a killer. That’s the truth,” Fesenmeyer says. “I could put a hole in [a] head down there down at the end of the road, no trouble. Those days I could see, lots of difference. That’s what I did. They would put me out in front of the lines with that weapon, and I was to guard the lines.”
Jerry Fesenmeyer shows off an accessible motorcycle.
Only days into combat, Fesenmeyer was shot June 5, 1945, in what was going to be the invasion of Shuri Castle in Okinawa. He was surprised by a Japanese sniper, who shot Fessenmeyer between the head and the heart. The bullet went in by one of his lungs, clipped it and went out through his spinal cord, leaving him an incomplete paraplegic.
Five days later, Fesenmeyer woke up in what he described as a hole in the ground and water up to his butt in an Army facility tent. He stayed there for another week before being moved to a hospital ship called The Mercy.
He was shipped to a handful of different places — including Guam, Hawaii, Oakland, Calif., and Camp Pendleton, Calif., — before finally being brought to the U.S. Naval Hospital Corona in Corona, Calif.
He stayed in bed for an entire year before staff started helping him get out of bed and into a wheelchair. But the pain in his legs persisted. Later, in his mid-20s, he chose to have his legs amputated.
South Of The Border
In California, though, Fesenmeyer found out that despite his tough situation, life didn’t have to be bad.
He learned how to play wheelchair basketball and, according to Los Angeles Magazine, is the last surviving member of the Rolling Devils, one of the first organized sports teams for athletes with disabilities. Driving was a challenge, too, and led to some crazy accidents with friends.
“When we drove a lot of times, one guy leaning over from the seat onto the floor and working the pedals and the other guy driving, I’ll tell you, you have a lot of accidents that way,” Fesenmeyer says. “Man, you were young. I was only 19 or 20.”
A few years later, he moved to Hawaii and stayed there about 12 years, living in a condominium from the late 1950s to mid-1960s and learning how to fly small airplanes before heading even further south to Guadalajara, Mexico. That’s where Fesenmeyer spent most of his time, living there for 25 years.
He bought a Cadillac with hand controls and spent time driving to the beach. He drank. He chased women. He caused trouble, spending plenty of time in cantinas. He ran the bar at a clubhouse. He enjoyed life. And he did it his way.
“I always rented my own place. I don’t like living around a bunch of gimps,” Fesenmeyer says. “ I had my own place. That way I got to meet people from middle class, people that are different from you, just servants and caregivers and stuff like that. These other guys, they marry their caregivers. I never went in for that.”
Fesenmeyer also joined the PVA Mexico Chapter and says they tried to help other paralyzed individuals. They bought them beds and took up collections for anyone who needed help. But, he admits, it was a struggle.
“You’d buy somebody a bed and they’d be laying on the ground on the tarp, paralyzed, chickens and pigs running around them. Boy, you guys don’t know how people lived. Oh man, you don’t know how good you’ve got it. Yeah, that’s the way they lived. It’s terrible,” Fesenmeyer says. “But we bought one, this guy, he had a 16-year-old daughter. We offered her work, and he wasn’t going to let her work for any gringos. And we would just give him a bed, a wheelchair, some money and you know, when we went back six weeks later, he’d sold the bed and the wheelchair. He was laying back on that tarp on the ground. So it kind of gets to you, makes you wonder why you did it. But you’ve got to keep doing it.”
Eventually, Fesenmeyer grew wary about the drug trade and his safety in Mexico. So he decided to move, this time to San Benito where he lives now. He had an old trailer converted into a house and hired his own help. There’s a river behind his backyard, and animals such as cougar, deer, wild turkeys and snakes sometimes make an appearance. His life is a whole lot more quiet now than in Mexico.
“The extent of my wild life now is listening to polka music on the farm TV channel,” Fesenmeyer jokes. “I used to dance. I loved to dance with women.”
Doing It His Way
Fesenmeyer does his care his way — home-based — paying three nurses to come up from Tamaulipas, Mexico.
One nurse comes up and stays with him for a week, around the clock, before another nurse comes up and takes over. None speak English. But that’s OK with Fesenmeyer, who taught himself Spanish by immersion in Guadalajara.
“And, you know, so why go against it? It don’t bother me,” Fesenmeyer says. “No, I’m not losing anything. I still have somebody to take care of me. They all take care of me good.”
Fesenmeyer has only had a few major health issues over the years.
There’s the pressure sore that occurred at the end of his sacrum that took 400 stitches to close in 1946-47.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Fesenmeyer started losing his sight. He developed a cataract and the operation went badly, leaving him with a scar between the macula and the lens. He struggles to make out faces from 10 feet away and admits sometimes it’s all a gray blur.
He closes his eyes to
get rid of it.
He doesn’t like hospitals and acknowledges he hasn’t gone for his annual exam at the South Texas Medical Center in San Antonio in at least 10 years. For the last four years, though, his health has improved thanks to increased water intake, and he hasn’t developed any infections or sores.
“Obviously, I’m doing the right thing. You stay away from hospitals and doctors, you stay healthy. That’s my philosophy,” Fesenmeyer says. “Well, you get there, and that’s where sick people are.”
Fesenmeyer wants other PVA members to know they can still have lives despite their injury. He’s proof of that. It’s all a matter of attitude.
“That there’s a life out there, just keep living it. Don’t give up,” Fesenmeyer says. “There’s no reason for a guy that can get around, even if he’s a quad or something. There’s something there for him. So get out there and do it.”
To see a few interview clips with Jerry Feseneyer, visit pvamag.com.
Hanging In There
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