Jim Wiley is a walking miracle. At least that’s the way he sees his life.
The Natchez native will turn 72 on Sunday but, according to medical science, may have never made 40. “I had terminal cancer, stage 4 colon cancer, in 1980,” he explains. Wiley was treated at M.D. Anderson Hospital and had 80 percent of his liver removed because of the disease. “They gave me six months to live and miracles started happening. I’ve been well ever since.”
But cancer isn’t the only battle Wiley has fought. These days, he still does battle with the memories of his time in Vietnam.
After graduating from Jackson State University with a degree in chemistry, Wiley took a job in Chicago at Wisconsin Steel. In 1967, he was drafted into the United States Army and was assigned to an armored division and thrust into scout training. He took a vacation before Officer Candidate School and dropped out when he returned, only to be sent to Vietnam.
The plane ride over was a constant questioning, he tells me. “When I left San Francisco, I was saying, ‘They’ll tell me they made a mistake and I’ll go back.’ It was the same thought when we stopped in the Philippines. But once we took off there, I knew. But then I thought, ‘There’s always Bien Hoa (Air Base in Vietnam): that’s my last chance.’ That’s the dream of someone who didn’t want to enter a war zone, this hell hole, just like I had seen on the news.”
Once deployed, standing in line awaiting orders and fearing placement in the infantry or armored division, Wiley was pulled aside to serve as a personnel specialist. Twists of fate kept him out of the most battle hardened areas, though he saw his fair share of combat danger. He says, “It scares me to think of what they had in mind (for his orders had he not been in personnel).”
Nightly attacks always came sometime after midnight. Wiley says the enemy knew of the American troops’ sleep habits and would intensify their activity accordingly. For eleven months, he says he was in constant fear, running into a bunker, praying for his life. To this day, he refuses to go to sleep before 3 am.
Eleven months, seemingly a short time, but for a solider in a war zone, pure terror. Add to that the stories of friends who had experienced battles and one particular story that still haunts Wiley to this day. His then fiance, Dean Smith, had a nephew also in Vietnam. “Junior” had written and Wiley says he seemed happy. “We talked about trying to get a discharge in time for us to all meet up at Christmas,” he recounts. Shortly after, Wiley received a letter from Smith saying Junior was dead. That was August of 1968. “I couldn’t understand how I could be so happy one day, and the next, stunned. That’s been with me all these years.”
Playing golf with Junior’s younger brother and talking through that death some years ago, Wiley realized he had never dealt with the loss. “All those years, I thought I was concealing something other people were seeing,” he says. “I went over (to Vietnam) a pseudo-intellectual and felt I was strong enough to overcome. But you can’t go into a war zone and come out the same.”
Wiley was honorably discharged in 1969 as a Sergeant E5 and came out into the structure of a corporate job with DuPont. His position as a Six Sigma called upon his skills to measure quality and strive for perfection. “They called us black belts,” he says of the disciplined, data driven assignment. It was in 2001 at age 59 that he took advantage of early retirement while living in Chattanooga.
Five years ago, Wiley published a book, The Dawn Will Come. Overpowered by emotions, he wrote the entire manuscript in 1981 after his cancer diagnosis, but held on to it, calling it his opportunity to deal with his feelings and his belief in God. “I’ve had a number of gifts along the way that I’m very much aware of now.”
These days, Wiley says he has a lot of joy and his share of demons. He enjoys working outside in his and wife Dean’s huge flower gardens, walking through their six acres near Raymond. But there are times of struggle. Wiley says he always thought his brain was strong enough to overcome memories of an earlier time. He credits the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Jackson for the wonderful job they’ve done with cognitive behavior therapy, helping him rewrite a story that has plagued his mind for years. “I used to cry at the mention of Junior’s name,” he explains. “But with that therapy, I understood some things that could have happened another way. It causes you to start looking at the alternatives. Wiley calls it “a lot of intense work,” helping him to be open, honest, introspective and deep.
When asked to recount his coming home from Vietnam, he hangs his head. “We were the only wartime military that came home as a disgrace,” he says. “We are America’s sons and daughters, and when we came home, we were spat upon and called baby killers.” Wiley recalls then President Carter’s 1976 ‘Heal The Nation’ speech welcoming draft dodgers to come home with no recourse. “But he never mentioned us, the veterans patriotic enough to give up good jobs, to honor their commitment and serve wherever they wanted us to serve.”
“I’m the same person who, when the Cuban crisis came along, was willing to drop out of college to enlist,” he continues. But we were called fools. We came home torn and everything was turned upside down. We just left one hostile environment for another.” Wiley penned an editorial titled, No One Seems to Care, published in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press following Carter’s speech. “It’s been with me, since 1976, that we died, were humiliated and tortured…the fears we have to this day, the cost we paid and we were still being ignored.”
But it was an early morning breakfast many years later in a Chattanooga hotel that began to turn the tide for Wiley. He explains: “A young father and his young son were there, and the father noticed my Vietnam Veteran’s cap. He took a beeline toward me and said, ‘I want to tell you thank you for your service and say, welcome home.’ That’s the first time I had heard that and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The father said, ‘Son, take a look at this man: don’t forget they put their lives on the line out of patriotism for our country. They are heroes.’ I left and cried my eyes out. I didn’t understand the emotion but that’s how deep it was.” Shortly after, Wiley joined the All American Servicepersons, a non-profit organization founded by his cousin, veteran Marvin Jackson, along with veterans Joe Ingram and Charles Robinson.
Finally, a Welcome Home
Wiley now serves on a VA mental health advisory council and a mental health leadership board. As program chairman for All American Service Persons, Wiley proposed a statewide welcome home Vietnam Veterans parade some years ago. He began to document high schools, colleges and academies across state, and, for the last two and half years, has been putting the pieces together. When his alma mater JSU got wind of the plans, they promised, on the spot, an honorary concert at Mississippi Veteran’s Memorial Stadium. The Jackson Convention & Visitors Bureau joined in on plans as well.
Two or three months back, JSU’s David Hoard, Executive Vice President for Institutional Advancement, set up a team to begin planning for a parade, a structure in place, ready to launch. That’s when Wiley learned about Jill Conner Browne through a fellow advisory council member. “Jill came to our next meeting,” Wiley recalls. “She had connections, influence and was a dynamo.”
The next morning, Browne called and asked Wiley to stand down. “She told me, ‘I know how committed you are, and the work you have done, but I have a plan.’” Browne told him about Fondren Renaissance’s Zippity Doo DahÂ® Weekend, saying, “We have a parade in place. We have the mechanism, the insurance, the permits and a guaranteed crowd.” “And then she said, ‘Jim, you can do the most fantastic job, but you have no crowd guarantee. And that wouldn’t be right. Let us do this for you. This is a gift from God.’ It struck me and I agreed. How could I turn this down?”
But Wiley continued to wonder about his role in the effort. He says, “I would ask questions and she would say, ‘Here’s what you should recognize: You are royalty and you will be treated as such. You don’t have to do anything but be there.’ Every barrier has been removed and I’m ecstatic.”
Just what is this weekend about? What is it doing for Vietnam veterans, who never got that welcome home? Wiley smiles. “Let me put it this way: We got our memorial, but we have never had the state recognize us. What this parade is doing for us is putting to rest some of the subtle pain we’ve had all these years.”
Wiley says he has talked to two fellow veterans, who said lingering memories of the Vietnam War never bothered them. “When I told them my story, hardened combat vets…here they were crying over my story. Zippity Doo DahÂ® is exposing that, putting us out front for the first time. When I talk to my group, you can tell the emotion, even when I said I was working on it early on. For us to be taken over by a world-known parade group, it’s top.
Cousin Marvin agreed: “He said, ‘We did it, Jim! We have come to a point where the Sweet Potato QueensÂ® and the Fondren area are saying ‘welcome home.’ The governor is saying welcome home, the City of Jackson is saying welcome home, and there are people saying, ‘I’m going to be there.’ I can’t put it into words.”
As Wiley takes his place on Saturday amidst the red, white and blue, in a VIP area for veterans, he knows he can’t possibly feel any more special than he does right now. “Royalty,” she said, “And you will be treated as such. To feel someone is interested enough, I can’t describe the emotion. “I’ve cried many tears over this. I’m afraid I’m going to cry riding on our float. Hey, men cry. Men cry.”