Triple amputee veteran proves its all about perspective

James Sursely, left, talks to a recovering soldier.


Not long after a devastating bomb attack on Jan. 11, 1969, U.S. Army Sgt. James Sursely laid in his hospital bed trying to think of football players who were missing two legs and an arm.

None came to mind. Still, he has no regrets about volunteering to serve in Vietnam.

Plans are meant to be altered

For Sursely, high school was all about football.

“The fact that I got an education at the same time was secondary,” laughs the Rochester, Minn. native. When he noticed his former classmates were going to college or to work in the big city, he decided to join the U.S. Army (“the only true branch” of the armed forces, he quips). It was 1965.

Sursely’s plan was to sign up for three years, get the educational benefits associated with the G.I. Bill and then play college football. He was confident in his ability to handle the military’s then-rigorous physical requirements, and he would be embarking on something exciting, challenging even. At the same time, he thought, he’d be giving back to his country.

Disabled American Veterans Past National Commander James E. Sursely (left) shares insight with Army Specialist Brian Kolfage of Dearborn Heights, Mich., at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005. Photo courtesy DAV

In June 1967, after six months of training stateside, Sursely was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, where he worked as a track vehicle mechanic — someone who worked on tanks, armored personnel carriers (APC) and other vehicles that ride tracks. But the work wasn’t much different than a 9-to-5 job.

“You just wore a green uniform while you were doing it,” he says.

So, Sursely told his sergeant he wanted to go to Vietnam.

Before approving the transfer, his sergeant made him talk with soldiers who had been there. Four days later, Sursely was convinced going to Vietnam was what he wanted and needed to do.

“It wasn’t a matter of trying to be a John Wayne type. There wasn’t any heroics,” Sursely said. “I just didn’t feel like I was making the contribution I was supposed to be making. I expected something more challenging. If I wanted just a job, I would have stayed home and worked.”

Sursely reported to Vietnam on March 1, 1968. Comfortable talking to higher-ranking personnel, he approached his first sergeant and told him he was a mechanic and was ready to get to work.

The first sergeant said, “Son, we don’t really have a motor pool in Vietnam,” and added that Sursely would be a machine gunner on an APC who would fight as needed and repair the track on the carrier as needed.

“About 10 and a half months into my 12-month tour, I got blown up by about 25 pounds of TNT that was in a plastic bag with a detonator,” Sursely says plainly.

This story was originally published on, a Ford Motor Company Fund initiative. Read the full story here: