WINTER HAVEN, FL - An evangelist has written his third book, "Wounded Soldier," about his Vietnam War experiences.
"Someone may even write a book about what happened." That's what John Steer, a Winter Haven resident for the past four years, heard from his fellow soldiers following a 1967 battle at Dak To in Vietnam. His immediate reaction was, "Who cares? That won't bring anybody back from the dead."
But Steer, 51, a surviving paratrooper at Dak To, eventually did write three books about the war, "Vietnam: Curse or Blessing?" "Faces I Tried to Forget" and, most recently, "Wounded Soldier."
He also contributed a chapter to William R. Kimball's anthology, "Vietnam: The Other Side of Glory."
Steer is founder of Living Word Christian Ministries, serves as chaplain for veterans' groups and is certified as an addictions specialist. With his wife, Donna, he received the designation of the 682nd Presidential Point of Light from former President George Bush for operating Fort Steer, a 40-acre, 25-bed refuge for addicted/traumatized veterans in Charlotte, Ark.
The Steers owned Fort Steer from 1986 to 1997.
It was only after Steer became a Christian evangelist and missionary that he was able to write about the war - and what it was like to return to the United States at age 19 with a mangled body, only one arm and endless rage and paranoia.
"When we came back, there were no bands playing. no drum rolls, no festive parades," said Steer, who remembers being jeered with obscenities when he gave a speech in a high school auditorium.
Steer's story, as related in his books, begins when he was a rebellious youngster in Minneapolis. He did poorly in school and reached third grade without being able to read.
He drank, got into fights, had sex with girls. stole cars and cigarettes and sometimes hid from police in the basement of a friend's house. If his father gave him money to put into the Sunday school offering plate, he kept the money for himself.
At 15 he was sent to reform school for something he didn't do - rape. He explained that a girlfriend invented the story in desperation when her mother found out about her sexual activity.
He said the girl eventually admitted the truth, and he was cleared of the charge. But he dropped out of school and continued to have problems with the law that kept him from being acceptable to the military.
In 1966 a judge expunged his record so that he could be inducted into the Army, and he became a paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne Infantry.
Steer was injured on three occasions in Vietnam, although the first was a minor scrape he refused to report. He received the Bronze Star, Silver Star and other medals.
He participated in two major 1967 Dak To battles, "The Slope" on June 22 and "Hill 875"on Nov. 19.
"We lost most of our company in the first one and most of our battalion in the second one," Steer said. "We were outnumbered many times to one."
He said that many baffles were fought in areas where the jungle was too thick to penetrate and terrain so mountainous that helicopters could not land to carry away the wounded. Waves of North Vietnamese would ran through, shooting some of the wounded in the head and torturing others while Americans a short distance away could not help.
"WHILE YOU ARE KILLING and being killed, all you can do is hate", Steer said.
He said stories about Americans saving ears of enemies as souvenirs are true. Not only that Steer said, they also sometimes carved "173" into the foreheads of dead Vietnamese and poked cigarettes or morsels of food into their mouths.
Some of Steer's experiences with civilians in Vietnam were shocking, too. Once while visiting a village near Da Nang, he was confronted by a man who lined up all 12 of his children in front of him.
"Take one," the man told him. "Take a boy or girl. You take one to the States."
"Here we were fighting this war and hating," said Steer, "and all he wanted was to make sure one of his children was safe."
Steer's last day of battle was on Hill 875. He was shot several times as he continued to fight, tended to the wounded, and dragged a fellow soldier to safety. Then explosives detonated around him.
For two days Steer lay underneath a pile of dead Americans. North Vietnamese soldiers prowled the area to finish off survivors, but they did not notice him.
He had been shot in the arm, foot and back. His chest was burned. His right forearm was gone and his right-leg nearly torn off.
Steer remembers praying to God, and he believes a miracle occurred that caused his wounds to stop bleeding long enough for help to come.
Yet his injuries were so horrifying that years later, when he happened to meet one of his rescuers, the other man was stunned to see him alive.
At a field hospital, Steer recalls, he was not given any medical attention until others had been attended to. He was told later that priority had to be given to those wounded who appeared to be able to survive, and he had been identified as one who probably would not.
"When they did get to me, three surgeons worked for three and a half hours the first time," he said, "That was the beginning of countless operations."
TWO YEARS IN hospitals did not change Steer from the troublemaker he had been, he says, only now he had post-traumatic stress syndrome. The fact that one arm was missing did not stop him from getting drunk and attacking other men, even while he was in the hospital.
The nightmares and rage continued after he and Donna were married.
It was 27 years ago, Steer said, that his conversion to Christianity changed his life. He and his wife and children - they eventually had four - set out on a series of mission journeys to Mexico, Haiti, Belize, El Salvador, the Philippines, the Soviet Union and other places. Sometimes they had no home except their van.
Steer said that his eyes were opened to a different aspect of the Vietnam War when he attended a traditional Vietnamese dinner in Australia. The dinner was prepared by expatriate South Vietnamese, mostly ex-soldiers who had fled to Australia at the end of the war, in honor of visiting U.S. veterans.
He was touched when about 500 Vietnamese bowed to the Americans and wept.
"Somebody cared that we tried," he said. "We talk about our aches and pains, but these poor people lost their whole country."
Steer began to write and sing country style gospel and patriotic songs and performed for 40,000 people at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He appeared on television with the 700 Club show and hosted his own show, "For the Vet," in Batesville, Ark.
Last year Steer won three awards, including Male Vocalist of the Year for traditional gospel music, from the North American Country Music Association International. He has recorded 14 albums.
One of his most recent shows was given in observation of Flag Day last month at Mariner Health of Winter Haven, and he spoke at the Eagle Lake display of the Moving Wall in March.
Steer said he was never satisfied with being designated by the military as 100 percent disabled and has continued doing numerous jobs in addition to his pastoral work.
As recently as this year, Steer was working 84 hours a week as a security guard for a Winter Haven citrus plant.
Steer served from 1992 to 1996 as a member of the Military Health Care Advisory Committee, appointed by President Bill Clinton.
"It always amuses me to think, 'Here I am, with my ninth-grade education, sitting down with generals, presidents and dignitaries of various countries."
"Then I realize that education has nothing to do with it. God has called me and anointed me to accomplish his will in my life."
Elaine Morgan can be reached at (863) 683-6538.
John Steer, left, is shown in Vietnam in 1967 with fellow soldier, George Kiourtais. Steer, a Winter Haven native, and an evangelist, most recently wrote "Wounded Soldier", detailing the horrors of war.