NORTHGLENN - Looking at old photos taken 45 years ago brings back memories for Lou Nonay. It reminds him of the 19-year-old U.S. marine who left his home in Denver to fight in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. It also reminds him of a day that changed his life: Feb. 6, 1968.
Nonay and his Marine unit were ambushed by the Vietcong. Pinned down in a rice patty, Nonay heard calls for help from a wounded marine who was caught out in the open.
"I could hear him yelling and so the natural thing to do was go out there and help him," Nonay said.
While taking fire from the enemy, Nonay and another marine were able to reach the wounded man and get him back to the rice patty. They saved the life of that wounded marine, but the act of valor nearly cost Nonay his life.
"Just as I helped the other fellow put him down is when I was shot and I knew immediately what had happened to me. I went down flat on my back. I knew that my spine had been shot," Nonay said.
He remembers lying in the rice patty full of water and fearing that he would drown. When a navy corpsman reached Nonay, it wasn't promising.
"The corpsman, I remember him. My head being between his knees and he was looking down at me and telling others, 'this man ain't going to make it,'" Nonay said.
Under enemy fire they were able to get Nonay aboard a medical helicopter to be evacuated. He was flown to a hospital in Da Nang where he was treated for three days.
Nonay was then transported to a hospital in Japan where he spent another three weeks before being flown home to the United States.
The bullet that struck Nonay's spine left him a paraplegic.
"Being injured and now confined to a wheelchair is not the easiest thing to deal with in the beginning, nor is it to this day," Nonay said.
Like many veterans he has also had to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
"You just can't put those images and experiences away as much as we try," Nonay said.
In time doctors expected the physical bullet wound Nonay suffered to heal. While it outwardly appeared to, Nonay knew something was wrong.
"I just wasn't feeling well and we could never figure out what was going on," he said.
Eventually, more than 40 years after being wounded in Vietnam, he became very sick with a high fever. Doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital discovered a severe infection in the area of his spine.
A surgery to discover the cause of the infection was Nonay's only hope.
"This is not an elective surgery. If you don't get it, basically I was going to die," Nonay said.
For 10 hours Dr. Evalina Burger, a surgeon at the University of Colorado Hospital, searched for the cause of Nonay's infection.
Burger is a former military surgeon in South Africa. When she found the source of Nonay's problem, she realized it had been there since the moment he had been shot in Vietnam.
"As we explored it we found this piece of green and white material and I picked it out with the forceps and I looked at it and said, 'this is flak jacket and there was just a moment of absolute surprise in the operating room,'" Burger said.
The material from his shredded flak jacket had been the cause of the infection he had dealt with for so long. The surgeons were able to remove all of the material that had been there for more than 40 years.
"All of a sudden you became part of history," Burger said.
She preserved that history for Nonay.
"We actually kept it in a little bottle for him because I thought that this is such an amazing find and I also thought it would give him some psychological closure to know why he had been suffering so long," Burger said.
While Nonay will still deal with the psychological wounds of war, he now can put to rest the physical wound he has been dealing with for more than 40 years.
"When I saw the remnants of that flak jacket, it just came to make so much sense why I had been so sick for so many years," Nonay said.
(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)