Charles George VA Medical Center - Asheville, NC
Heroes Among Us: Odell Vaughn
Heroes walk among us. If that expression is true anywhere, it certainly has to be true at places like VA Medical Centers. If you ask a Veteran, "Are you a hero?" the man or woman will, no doubt, say "No." They will tell you that the real heroes are the ones who didn’t make it home. They were just doing their job.
Heroes walk, and roll, through the halls and clinics of the Charles George VA Medical Center every day. One of the men who might fall into this category is 91-year old Odell Vaughn. Vaughn is a Greenville, S.C., native who was raised in Spartanburg, S.C. He enlisted in the National Guard at age 17 to serve his country in World War II, while still a student at Spartanburg High School. He was sent to England and later served in North Africa and Italy.
Vaughn lost one leg to a German landmine on a battlefield about nine kilometers from the city of Pisa, Italy in July 1944, Vaughn, a member of the National Guard 178th Field Artillery, stepped on the mine while trying to save a wounded soldier. He made a tourniquet from his belt to stop the bleeding and then he laid there for hours with his comrade, waiting for help.
Vaughn told a reporter a few years ago that he prayed to God to die while he was lying there, but when he thought about his wife, Virginia, and his two-year-old son, Odell Jr., he realized that praying to die was wrong. “I had a wife, and a child I had never seen. I quickly changed my attitude,” Vaughn told the reporter.
He came home a double amputee. Vaughn lost his other leg nine days after the first because doctors were unable to repair the damage. He recuperated in a hospital for 13 months, and his wife moved closer to the hospital so she could see him every visiting hour. Vaughn received the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his service and sacrifice.
When he returned to South Carolina, Vaughn began working for Veterans Affairs in Columbia and later in Florida. He held a number of positions in VA during his 35 year career. “I was a GS-2 greeter in Florida. Did you know that there was a rating that low?” he asked. From a GS-2 greeter in Florida he eventually rose to Deputy Secretary of the Veterans Administration. Vaughn worked for Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter. Vaughn said that he liked working for President Ford best. Vaughn explained that he and Mr. Ford lived in the same neighborhood in Washington, D.C., before he was appointed to the office of Vice-President and eventually became President. (Ford became President after Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal.)
Vaughn has received more than 50 awards and other recognitions for his 35 years of service to Veterans while a member of the VA. He's never let the loss of his legs slow him down, according to those who know him. He's golfed, skied and hiked, and had a reputation as an amateur carpenter and gardener. He retired from Federal service and after a few years of inactivity, “I took a job selling life insurance because I was bored.” Vaughn is not the type of man who likes to sit still for long. “I've been through about four sets of legs,” he said.
At the age of 91 he has had to make some concessions to age. His back is no longer strong enough to allow him to walk with artificial limbs so he has been in a wheelchair for four years now. He stopped driving about the same time explaining that he thought it was time he stuck to being a passenger instead of the driver.
His home in South Carolina is one-and-a-half hours driving time from the Charles George VA Medical Center, but he has been coming here to get his medical treatment since 1999. He said that he had shoulder replacement surgery that year. The bad shoulder was a lingering injury from the landmine explosion in 1944.
Why choose the Charles George VA Medical Center he was asked when he lives so far away? The answer to that question requires some explanation. During the time that he worked for the VA he said that he visited 72 different facilities across the country and he was impressed by Asheville. "My treatment has been excellent; couldn’t be better. The people who do the work are very personable too. They take the time to explain what has to be done."
Vaughn said he's had the chance to talk to Veterans, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom are coming home from battle missing limbs from improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs. He said that he has an advantage when talking to these Veterans because of their common experience.
His time in the military and political trenches has ended but he still keeps up with events. He mentioned several times during a recent phone interview that he is worried about the backlog of Veterans claims. “When I was in (the VA) we were able to keep up with the (claims that Veterans made from) different wars. Now there is a backlog, and when a Veteran has to wait, that means he has nothing to do, but to try and earn a living" in between submission and judgment.
Vaughn is a widower now. He and his wife had two daughters and one son. His son died in a helicopter crash a few years ago, but in spite of all the physical and emotional pain that he has endured, and the weight of 91 years, Odell Vaughn has a smile and a firm handshake ready for any person who passes his way.
Ask him if he is a hero, and I’ll bet he’ll tell you. "No. I was only doing my job."