Like hundreds of thousands of other young men and women who grew up in the 1960s and 1970, the Vietnam War changed Robert Russow’s life.
Russow, 66, is one of the throng of young men and women who answered their nation’s call and went to fight in Vietnam. He carries with him the scars of that war since a fateful day just before Christmas 1966 when an unseen enemy soldier shot him while he was on patrol with his Marine Corps unit.
Russow was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Russow, who lived northwest of Carthage. He graduated from Carthage High School in 1964. Back then, a young man knew, once he graduated high school, he was likely to be drafted.
Russow got a jump on the draft, though, when he and two buddies, Neil Smith, who still lives in Carthage, and Keith Graham, who lives in Colorado, joined the U.S. Marine Corps in February 1966. Soon after basic training Russow found himself headed for Southeast Asia.
“I joined K Company, Third Battalion, First Marine Division,” Russow said. “I flew into Vietnam in July. I was a replacement and when we arrived, it was like a covey of quail, we scattered everywhere.”
Russow said his unit was on patrol in Vietnam just five days before Christmas in 1966 when his life changed forever.
“We were crossing a rice paddy when a sniper shot me,” Russow said. “He hit me just below the shoulder blade and the bullet exited my brachial plexus.”
The bullet damaged the brachial plexus, a cluster of nerves in the shoulder. It also collapsed a lungs and severed the brachial artery.
Bleeding badly, Russow was taken to the Da Nang Hospital on Dec. 20, 1966.
Even today he praises the helicopter pilots who risked their own lives to pick up wounded soldiers from a battlefield where bullets and shells were flying. Many more would have died if not for these brave men.
“If it hadn’t been for the helicopter pilots, I would have bled to death,” Russow said.
Russow’s family quickly learned that Robert had been critically injured
While in the Da Nang Field Hospital, he received his purple heart on Dec. 23, 1966. He would also be visited by Billy Graham and thinks very highly of him.
“A General came through the Quonsets hut and he gave me my purple heart,” Russow said. “There coming right after him was Billy Graham. That was neat.”
On their flight back to the states, the plane stopped in Alaska where they were visited by Bob Hope.
The young Marine was flown to a hospital in Washington, D.C. Then to a naval hospital in Memphis, Tenn. where he was to receive more treatment and possible surgery to try to partially repair damage done by a sniper bullet.
His parents planned to be there as soon as they knew when to be there. Robert insisted his younger brother, Jim, a senior at Carthage High School in 1966, stay in school, continue his education and not miss days of school because of his brother’s injuries.
In The Carthage Press, July 1968, Gaye Ramm quoted Russow’s thoughts, in an article about what the Fourth of July Holiday really means to Carthaginians.
Russow said he preferred to fight Communism in Vietnam rather than the U.S. He felt it a tragic sight to see women and children wandering homeless and starving and Americans should appreciate America and all it stands for.
He was next taken to Bethesda, Maryland to the Bethesda Naval Hospital for surgery. At Bethesda they wanted to remove his arm, but he refused and has never been sorry about his decision.
If the bullet had hit a little further in any direction the injury would not have been so severe – but as it was not to be – he would live with the nerve damage the rest of his life.
“The doctors told me it was like cutting a bunch of telephone wires that weren’t color coded,” Russow said. “Some of them may grow back and some may not.”
Russow, who was naturally right-handed, said he’s regained limited use of his right arm and hand, but he had to relearn how to write with his left hand.
“I think I’ve got the first letter I wrote home when I was at Da Nang hospital,” Russow said. “It looks like a first grader wrote it, the lines aren’t even straight. Surprisingly, it was easier for me to write (in cursive) than print at first, but now I can do both.”
Quite a “trip” for a 20-year-old boy. Like most veterans, he wondered why he came back and others didn’t and will never get an answer.
He could have sat down and let the government do whatever they do, but this was not the path he chose.
He worked at Higginbotham’s Jewelers, Jack Morris Chevrolet, he then purchased C & C Coin Shop in Joplin. (He had collected coins since childhood.) He makes house calls, and has many customers in Carthage.
“I only work by appointment now,” Russow said. “I’d like to retire, but people won’t let me.”
In the midst of this he met a beautiful Lockwood girl, named Janet Stamps, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Don Stamps, who was in her first year of teaching in the Carthage school system.
As time passed, they would marry, worked hard, and became devoted caregivers to their parents, as it was needed.
One of their pastimes is old cars. His current project is a 1962 Corvette, which he takes to shows and cruise nights. Robert has cleaned, polished and restored a number of old cars himself.
At some point Robert was able to visit the Vietnam Combat Veterans’ traveling memorial called the Moving Wall, a mobile version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. He said seeing that wall, with the names of more than 55,000 men and women who died in the Vietnam War, was a moving experience.
I knew what he meant, (in my small way). I had not been impressed with the design or the designer – but then I stood before it, paralyzed with devotion and gratitude for all the selfless people who simply did their duty when their country called.
Such a one is Robert Russow, who will carry the cost of such devotion for the rest of his life.