WGN Medical Watch often profiles doctors, nurses and cutting-edge treatments. But on Veterans Day, it’s a retired construction worker and now volunteer who has a story well worth sharing.
Even after retiring from the construction team at NorthShore University HealthSystem, Patrick O’Leary helped build several patient-care facilities from the ground up. The 77-year-old said he can’t walk away.
“They hired me May 1, 1968,” he said. “It’s time to give back.”
He’s been a hospital volunteer for five years but his life of service began decades ago.
“I remember listening to one of President Kennedy’s speeches. That’s when I decided to enlist,” he said. “And I knew I wanted to be a paratrooper and I wanted to make my way to Vietnam.”
With his buddy Jerry by his side, the two had become best friends during basic training. The then 21-year-old O’Leary arrived in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne brigade.
During his 12-month tour, O’Leary ran four major combat operations. One stands out.
“We made contact on the 8th of November,” he said.
Designed to drive out enemy forces that had taken up positions on several key hills, Operation Hump turned out to be an ambush. (Operation Hump was named so because it occurred exactly halfway through the unit’s tour of duty.)
“From my view, the entire day and night was organized confusion,” he said. “Charlie and Bravo Companies were in the thick of it with about 60 percent casualties, killed or wounded. We were literally surrounded.”
On the ground, O’Leary served as a radio-telephone operator. He kept track of the soldiers sent ahead to determine enemy locations, his friend Jerry among them.
“I knew that Jerry was part of that patrol and I know I wept when their radio went silent. I was sure I had lost my best friend,” he said. “(He wad) my friend all the way through Basic Training, my friend that I would have been proud to call my brother. I felt empty and helpless.”
Fifty-eight years later, what happened on November 8, 1965, still brings back powerful emotions for O’Leary.
“We lost 49 men, many of them my friends,” O’Leary said.
When he finally returned to base following Operation Hump, he said there was a surprise.
“When the chopper came down and all the red dust blowing up, I could see a lone figure standing in the distance,” he said.
Jerry had been the lone survivor of his 12-man patrol during the deadly mission.
“A bullet or grenade fragment had pierced his helmet, knocked him unconscious, and he was bleeding and left for dead,” O’Leary said. “He had footprints on his chest after being stripped of all his equipment. I felt so good, so good that day.”
On the 50th anniversary of Operation Hump, O’Leary and his wife Judi traveled to Washington D.C. and the Vietnam Memorial.
“A gentleman pushed his hand through the crowd, and he said, ‘Welcome Home,’” O’Leary said. “Other than my family, I think that is the first time anybody said that with feeling and emotion. And it meant a lot that day.”
O’Leary spent Veterans Day recording his story for the national archives – he was one of 28 veterans selected to do so.