Wounded veteran finally pain free: Hurt in Vietnam, amputation stops pain for Schiwal, Lions Club plan benefit

In November 1972 Howard Schiwal was a Marine Sergeant on temporary duty from Japan in Vietnam.  While sleeping in the barracks, a grenade exploded.  Howard and two others were hurt.

Howard Schiwal
Howard Schiwal

By Lewellyn Rustan | Special To The Herald

In November 1972 Howard Schiwal was a Marine Sergeant on temporary duty from Japan in Vietnam.  While sleeping in the barracks, a grenade exploded.  Howard and two others were hurt.

In a hospital in Japan, they removed shrapnel and mattress material, but much of the shrapnel could not be removed.

“I’m full of shrapnel from the waist down,” Schiwal said. “There’s enough metal in me to cause body searches in airports.”

Later, arthritis complications added to the problem, resulting in eight surgeries, the last two being artificial ankles on his left leg.

Over the following 43 years, the pain continued to increase.  Schiwal’s daughter Bonnie commented that “at least 25 years of pain”  were particularly bad.

Schiwal recognizes now the effect that had on his attitude.

“When I was hurting, I wasn’t pleasant to be around,” Schiwal said. “I didn’t realize how big a jerk I was.”

“You didn’t realize it until afterwards,” Faye said.  “Now he’s much more pleasant to be around!”

The “afterwards” refers to the eventual amputation of Howard’s left leg below the knee, on July 15 in the Hettinger hospital.

Deciding to have the amputation didn’t come easily.  The ankle replacements hadn’t solved the problem.  After the first one, he stepped in a hole, and it was “back to square one.”  The second ankle replacement didn’t work.

Eight years ago, one of his doctors recommended amputation.

“It was like hitting me on the head with a baseball bat,” Schiwal remembers.

He went into a bad, deep depression.

“The last years, there were times I didn’t know if I wanted to live,” Schiwal said. “I couldn’t take enough pain medication and alcohol.”

He credits a medical professional for calling attention to what he was doing with the pills and the alcohol.  He said simply, “I quit.”

“This spring I decided, I’m going to have it done,” Schiwal said.

He was given a book, “First Choice” to read.  It led him, step by step, through every phase of what he was facing, from the decision to the prosthesis.  He was told, ‘you’re never going to look back and regret it.’

“And, I haven’t,” Schiwal declares. “After that, I made peace with myself, and I was ready to have it done, it’s gone quite well.”

His battery of medical professionals and facilities included the Veterans Hospital at Ft. Meade, the New England Clinic, and doctors and hospitals in Hettinger and Bismarck.  He’s gotten to know all of them quite well.

“This is the first day (the day of this interview) that we were actually at home, not going to therapy, to the clinic, for check-ups, or doctor appointments,” Faye noted.

“There have been a lot of trips, and a lot of gas,” Schiwal said.

Oil changes come every couple of weeks, instead of several months between changes.

There have also been a lot of nights spent in hotels.  And there will be much more of that when the process of fitting him with a prosthesis begins.

“We’re hoping that by the end of the year I’ll have a temporary prosthesis,” Schiwal said. “I’ll have that for a year to 18 months, and then get the permanent one.”

Much of the financial costs that come from inside the medical facility’s doors is covered by the Veterans Administration, Medicare, and a supplemental insurance policy.  But the costs the Schiwals have to cover are staggering.

“It’s depleted a couple savings accounts,” Schiwal admits.

But the pain is also gone, he smiles.

“Right now, I’m pain free,” Schiwal said. “I haven’t needed a pain pill for more than two weeks, and I have no phantom pains.”

Driving through the North Dakota countryside on the way home from another appointment with a doctor, Schiwal observed the hay bales in the fields.

“When I get my leg, maybe somebody will let me stack bales,” Schiwal said.  “I’ll be able to drive a tractor.”

The New England Lions Club is hosting a medical needs benefit noon dinner on Sunday, October 4 at the New England Memorial Hall.  Donations can also be sent to New England Lions Club, PO Box 23, New England, ND.

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