As DAV Magazine continues featuring members whose lives were forever changed a half-century ago, we highlight the man credited with the concept of wounded veterans celebrating their ‘Alive Day.’
Vietnam didn’t waste its time making an impression on Jim Mayer. A week into the 23-year-old infantryman’s deployment, a village elder insisted Mayer and other members of his platoon follow him into a hut to view a small coffin. Inside it was a young Vietnamese boy who had been playing in a rice paddy and tripped a land mine.
“Just the trunk of his body was left,” Mayer said. “It was an awful sight, and it really stuck with me.”
As if the realities of war needed to be further reiterated to him, they were fortified by the letters his platoon mates received from other soldiers who had already been wounded.
“They were just saying ‘I’m alive’ or ‘I took my first step as an amputee,’ and I remember thinking, ‘If that happened to me, I’d take my M-16 and take care of myself,’” he said.
Little more than two months later, on April 25, 1969, Mayer nearly received the same fate as the boy inside the coffin when he also triggered a land mine that was placed in a Vietnamese rice paddy. As he stepped over a 2-foot wall, he heard a click, froze and was sent flying in the air by the 60mm mortal shell the enemy had hidden there. When he hit the ground, he looked down and saw that the bottom of his left leg was gone and his right leg was severely damaged. He said his shock kept him from feeling the pain.
“The first thing I said to my friend that reached me was ‘I’m going to live,’ which was really bizarre because I had really thought if I was blown up that bad that I would just end it,” Mayer explained. “But it was just a 180. It was just will. I don’t even know where it came from.”
Through the efforts of the platoon medic, Mayer was evacuated and remained conscious until he reached the operating room at the 25th Infantry Division hospital at Củ Chi. That’s when the shock wore off and the pain kicked in. When Mayer woke up two days later, a priest informed him that he had administered last rites while he was on the operating table. The priest also asked Mayer to look down.
“That’s when I saw that both of my legs were gone below the knees.”
It was then—with a generous dose of morphine pumping through his system—Mayer made the decision to mark the life-changing event with a “Thank God I’m Alive” party every April 25.
Mayer made good on his promise after spending most of the following year recuperating at a military hospital in Texas. He spent his first Alive Day in his parents’ backyard with people from his small hometown in Missouri who had reached out to him while he was recovering.
In 1972, the DAV life member moved to Washington, D.C., as a veterans lobbyist and took a position with the Department of Veterans Affairs, where he served his fellow veterans in various capacities from 1974 until his retirement in 2007.
In 1991, Mayer began volunteering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as an amputee peer visitor. He eventually became known as “The Milkshake Man” for bringing trays full of milkshakes to wounded patients who had just returned from the first Gulf War. His efforts there were even noted in a 2004 Doonesbury comic strip.
Through it all, Mayer’s own Alive Day parties grew in size and eventually became an event attended by dozens of family members, friends, co-workers and wounded veterans he had met and mentored—all of whom are undoubtedly happy Mayer was able to summon the will to face down life-altering injuries a half-century ago, choosing to live and use his experience to inspire his fellow veterans.
Listen to our first DAV Podcast of other veterans whom have been impacted by DAV (Disabled American Veterans) through its mission of fulfilling our promises to the men and women that served.