PORTLAND — After Urban Miyares spent two days in a body bag in Vietnam, life could only get better.
The Army veteran calls the 1968 firefight something that “saved my life,” even though he’s dealt with blindness, a kidney transplant, diabetes, mobility problems and post-traumatic stress syndrome in the last 43 years.
He’s dealt with those issues in a lot of ways. The San Diego resident helps other disabled veterans set up businesses, has set speed records in competitions for blind skiers and headed a crew of sailors with a range of disabilities in a 2,200-mile trans-Pacific yacht race.
“We didn’t finish last,” Miyares pointed out.
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There have been a lot of steps along the way, including several weeks when Miyares and his family lived in Vancouver as part of a Veterans Affairs organ transplant program. That was in 2004, when Miyares received a new kidney in Portland’s VA Medical Center.
Miyares and Crockett, his German shepherd guide dog, were back at OHSU Hospital on Monday for his annual post-transplant checkup. And Miyares is doing great, said Dr. Douglas Norman, medical director of the OHSU kidney transplant program, which partners with the VA on several aspects of veterans’ health care.
One of Miyares’ business cards identifies him as president of the Disabled Businesspersons Association, a nonprofit based at San Diego State University. Another card identifies him as co-founder of Challenged America, a program that promotes sailing for people with disabilities.
He’s a speaker and a consultant whose story can resonate with millions of people on a national telecast, or with a few wounded veterans. Miyares shared his experiences with both audiences last week. He was featured Wednesday in a segment on NBC’s “Today” show. And, also last week, Miyares met with blind military personnel who’d lost their sight in Iraq or Afghanistan.
But for any audience, Miyares’ most compelling story starts with that body bag. He was a U.S. Army sergeant in 1968, Miyares said, when he started having health problems. After reporting to sick call, Miyares was told he had combat fatigue. After another visit, the 19-year-old soldier was told he had a peptic ulcer.
“They gave me Maalox. An M-16 ammo pouch is made for a bottle of Maalox,” he said. But that didn’t help his problem.
In his final mission in Vietnam, Miyares’ unit was helicoptered to a landing site near a village. The last thing he remembered was the sound of mortars targeting his unit and machine guns opening up from a tree line to their right.
Two days later, he woke up in a hospital in Saigon.
Miyares asked: What happened?
He was told: “You were in a body bag. They thought you were dead,” Miyares recounted.
It wasn’t enemy fire that dropped Miyares; it was a diabetic coma.
After his story appeared in a publication for disabled veterans, the soldier who’d found him — Brian Leet — contacted Miyares. It was Leet’s job to open body bags and make sure their occupants were dead.
“He told me, ‘You just had a different color,’” Miyares said. “He felt slight a pulse, then he called a medic who felt my pulse. They threw me on a helicopter to Saigon.”
After the diagnosis of diabetes in 1968, “They said I’d be lucky to live for 20 years,” he said.
His kidney disease was diagnosed in 1982, and Miyares became totally blind in 1984.
“I was probably legally blind in 1972 or ’73,” he said.
In 2004, Miyares was scheduled for a kidney transplant at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center, the western regional hub for veterans’ organ transplants, which includes the Vancouver VA campus. The surgery is done in Portland, but the transplant patients spend most of their time here at the transplant lodging unit in Vancouver. Miyares lived in Vancouver for several weeks — before and after surgery — as wife JoAnn and their son Urban Paul helped take care of him.
“I didn’t realize how sick I was” until the new kidney went to work, he said.
Miyares’ work as a small-business resource for vets has been recognized by presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, the Small Business Administration and Disabled American Veterans.
And in that role, he’s tapped into something other vets can understand: post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“What are the symptoms of PTSD?” Miyares posed.
“Workaholic; opinionated. You can get angry, but if you can control it, you can channel your energies differently,” Miyares said.
“Stress? I know what stress is,” Miyares said. “I’ve been dead.”