Vet believes in second chances

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

A graphic on the front of Tommy Clack's business card depicts a bald eagle in flight with his logo validating the obvious: Have Wheelchair Will Travel.

His card also has the Bible verse John 15:13 -- "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends."

That's been Clack's job for many years as Georgia Department of Veterans Services field office manager in Conyers where he assists veterans in Rockdale and Newton counties. His drive to help others came from his service in the Vietnam War where he lost both legs above the knee and all of his right shoulder and arm.

"God gave me a second chance," Tommy said. "Personally, I believe I'm a better person with one appendage than I was with four."

Clack is the recipient of numerous military decorations and in civilian life has received more than 100 prestigious local, state and federal awards and honors. In the last 40 years he's covered all 50 states with more than 6,150 speaking engagements, has been one of the subjects in four books and portrayed wounded soldiers in movies. And yet he doesn't consider himself a hero, and none of the awards or decorations grace his walls.

"My heroes are on a long black wall in Washington, D.C., all 58,000 of them," Clack said. "The greatest honor I've had is being a single parent to my son, Adam, serving in Afghanistan, and my daughter, Erin, proprietor of her own business."

Johnny T. "Tommy" Clack was born and reared in Decatur. His father was a decorated veteran of World War II and The Korean War.

Clack received a track scholarship to the University of Houston but soon dropped out of college to join the Army. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant after completing officer candidate school.

"As a kid I enjoyed shooting off firecrackers, so after O.C.S. I requested training in Army artillery figuring that would offer bigger explosions," he said.

Clack did so well in artillery that his initial request for duty in Vietnam was denied. Clack said the Army wanted him to train others in explosives as an artillery instructor.

"I trained artillery soldiers from around the world," Tommy said. "But I kept agitating my superiors for combat duty until they relented and approved my orders for Vietnam."

Clack served his first tour of duty as a forward artillery observer with the Vietnam Field Force. "I covered base camps from the DMZ to the Mekong Delta," Clack said. He was soon promoted to captain and began a second tour of duty.

Clack served with the C/2/27 Wolfhounds of the 25th Division on the Cambodian border near the village of Ap Duc when tragedy struck on May 29, 1969.

"We were engaged in a hellacious fire-fight blocking Highway One from Phnom Penn to Saigon," he said. "I was calling in artillery when a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) struck my right foot and detonated. I was awake and alert for a few minutes, but gradually loss my vision, awareness, and could no longer feel or hear the people working on me."

Clack suffered internal injuries, including a loss of hearing, his right eye popped out, along with the loss of his limbs.

Unable to find a pulse or any signs of life, the Army medic on the evacuation chopper covered Clack's body with a rain poncho. Landing at the 12th Evac Hospital MASH unit, Clack was laid in line with other dead soldiers.

A doctor from the trauma room, for reasons unknown, uncovered Clack and saw something that made him realize he was still alive.

Clack was hospitalized for the next 22 months, 20 of them at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. After 33 operations, Clack "walked" out of the VA Medical Center on prosthetic legs.

Adaptation to his prosthetic legs became difficult for Clack, and a wheelchair has provided his mobility ever since.

Clack worked with Sen. Sam Nunn on veterans issues and served as staff assistant to the director of the Atlanta VA Medical Center.

Clack has been at the Georgia Department of Veterans Services' Conyers office since 1993. His work involves informing the veterans and their families about veterans' benefits and directly assisting and advising veterans and their families in securing the federal and state benefits to which they are entitled.

"Our work week averages 70 hours," he said. "If I die at my desk, that's fine with me."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam Veteran and author of A Veteran's Story, a regular feature of the Citizen. E-mail him at petemecca@gmail.com.