Adapt and Overcome: A Veteran’s Story
by Josh Kinser
Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way. One hunter proves it by finding his way back to his passion.
As a child, Jim Spencer read hunting books about expeditions to foreign lands with dangerous game, dreaming of the day he would go there as a young man. Two of his favorite books were Hemingway’s “The Green Hills of Africa” and “Hunter” by John A. Hunter. There was one book though that he coveted more than any other—”Hell, I Was There!” by Elmer Keith. Keith is often considered to be the “dean of gun writers” and Spencer considers the book his hunting bible.
His copy of Keith’s book is worn out and the spine is broken. The pages are filled with tales of big game hunting from Alaska to Texas to Africa. Those worn out pages are what Jim says give him his Nugent-like desire and love of the hunt. “By the time I was five I could spell rhinoceros and hippopotamus,” Jim recalls. “One time I got into an argument with a zookeeper about how many toes an African and an Indian elephant had. He thought they all had four toes.” You see, Jim has always loved hunting, as well as the game he hunted. There was a time though when Jim didn’t hunt—nor wanted to— when he didn’t re-read those favorite books of his. That time was after he came back from Vietnam, paralyzed from a gun shot to the neck.
Recon Mission: Thanksgiving 1970
That 1970 Thanksgiving morning in Vietnam, Jim got ready for the mission just like he would any other day. He had a quick meal at the mess hall and swiped himself an extra bacon and ketchup sandwich, a Thanksgiving treat for later. Jim found his spot in the helicopter behind his machine gun and the bird rose into the air. The jungle air blew through the chopper and within minutes the scouts found themselves in their usual business, in contact with the enemy.
“I returned fire,” Jim said, “concentrating on the most likely looking area, as Lt. Grogan made our getaway. I didn’t stop shooting until we were at 200 feet, and our Cobras (attack helicopters) were pounding the area. I was patting myself on the back for a job well done, thinking how I had remained cool, as usual.” But as Jim looked down he noticed his knees shaking and thought, “Yes, Stupid–you are scared!”
After surveying the damage and looking for the enemy, the choppers ran low on fuel and returned to base for a refit. “I stepped back into the LOH (Light Observation Helicopter), taking the last step I would ever take on this earth. I was one hour away from a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart, and the beginning of an unbelievable living nightmare.”
Within minutes, the crew spotted some suspicious trails going into a patch of trees.
“I instinctively pulled my vest up tight under my neck, and leveled my M60 (machine gun) on the area, as Lt. Grogan circled to give me a good shot. I opened up on the first patch of trees, noticing several bunkers and a few camo hooches (a thatched roof hut) hidden in them. When we didn’t draw fire, Lt. Grogan set me up to hit the bunkers and hooches with frags (fragmentation grenades). I fired into it with my M60 first, and then we slowed up so I could take a closer look. This group of trees had a few bunkers and a huge camo hooch.”
Jim dropped one of his homemade bombs into the hooch. When it detonated there was a large secondary explosion. Jim would find out later, in the paperwork for his Distinguished Flying Cross, that what he had hit was a large ammo dump. The pilot then headed for a third patch of trees.
As the helicopter approached, the familiar sound of an enemy AK-47 could be heard. There was also a pop and a thud Jim was very unfamiliar with.
“I saw something—a muzzle flash, smoke, something. Suddenly everything went into slow motion. My 60 was silent. The AK’s were silent. I heard nothing except a loud ringing in my ears. My view changed from the target to the ceiling of the chopper. I couldn’t feel my body and thoughts raced throught my mind—you’re hit in the brain. No, you’re still thinking. The heart? No, you’re breathing. By that time I was hanging suspended in midair by the chopper’s seat straps. A bullet had hit the right front side of my neck, severed a main artery, completely severed the spinal cord and exited the back of my neck, leaving a hole over an inch in diameter. I helplessly watched the blood slowly cover the floor until all I could see was red. I didn’t know how much blood a human had. From hunting, I knew a deer had 7 or 8 pints. I felt I had lost more than that already. I was wondering when I would die. I had taken a hit that was almost always fatal and I was still alive. I hung in midair, and could move nothing except my head. I looked up at Lt. Grogan and blinked to let him know I was alive. My battle with the Viet Cong was over, and a new battle was about to begin, a battle for survival. A battle that is ongoing, and a battle I didn’t want to win for a while.”
“For a while, I wanted to die, but I was hurt so bad I couldn’t even kill myself. Somewhere along the way I picked up the will to live, along with a positive attitude. I managed to figure out ways to do the things I enjoyed from a wheelchair.” After being transferred to the VA hospital in Memphis from Walter Reed, Jim asked his father to bring up his guns when he came to visit. “A few days after a surgery, I was asking doctors about my movement, going through all these scenarios about how I could shoot, laying in the dirt, maybe with a bipod.”
The bullet went right through Jim’s neck and spinal cord at his C6 and 7 vertebrae. He is paralyzed from the shoulders down, but has slight command over his arms. While at the Houston VA Hospital, Jim was given a metal brace that fit on the inside of his forearm and into the palm of his hand. A small fitting that came just outside the hand and over the thumb had attachments that fitted into it. A comb, a toothbrush, a fork and several other attachments came with it. Jim’s condition is too severe to allow him to get the full use out of the tool.
“The only time I use it for something other than shooting is maybe on Thanksgiving. I’ll try to feed myself a little with it.” Jim had been thinking about how he could shoot for a few years at this point and then he was given a new 6mm Remington for Christmas. “I went shooting the next day and it was the best day of my life, every shot felt so good.”
When you watch Jim shoot, you’ll see adaptation every step of the way—the brace, the Boy Scout belt attached to the butt of the rifle and looped around his shoulder, or how the old school desk across his lap has a rod and a makeshift rifle rest sticking up from it. You’ll also see a tight grouping of shots inside the bull’s eye.
After practicing several times at the range with his new found ability to shoot again, Jim thought he’d have to wait until the next fall to try it out on game. “Back then, I didn’t know about these Texas game ranches. I saw an ad in the back of hunting magazine for a place up in Kerrville. I took a sika deer on the first day and also an axis and a mouflon during the four-day trip. It was 1973 and it felt like I had my whole life back.”
This past summer Jim decided he wanted to go after an impala at the 777 Ranch in Hondo. Jason Molitor, the 777 Ranch manager, would be the guide with Jared Rann also helping out. Getting Jim into place is not a simple task. The handicap van must be pulled up, the wheelchair ramp must be pulled out, the wheelchair must clank down the ramp, the desktop must be fitted to the wheelchair, the rifle rest must be clamped down, the brace used for the trigger must be taped to the forearm, the rifle must be attached to Jim’s shoulder, tightened and finally, the motorized wheelchair must move into place for the shot. All this movement and time were just too much for the impalas. There were several chances, but the spooky impalas watched carefully from a distance and then bounced away, gracefully disappearing into the hills and brush.
After a suggestion from the guides, Jim adapted like he always has and realized that chasing the ghost-like impalas may be a fool’s chase. Jason suggested he go after some of the big axis deer or one of the big red stags. Jim liked the plan but had to rest before hunting for the stag. The heat was pushing over 100 degrees that day, and it was obviously getting to him. The last three times Jim had gone on a hunt before this he ended up in the hospital. The bouncing around in the truck and the kick of the gun can bring on internal bleeding. In all honesty, every hunt Jim goes on is probably as dangerous to his own life as is it his prey.
Jim’s guides built a blind about 100 yards from the feeder closest to where the stag had last been seen. A shady tree sat over the blind making it much cooler. The wind was perfect. Logs and twigs pulled into an L shape provided great concealment and Jason chopped brush and cactus to make shooting lanes. It took about an hour for that red stag to come out in that slanted light of the late afternoon. He, and another stag, came strutting in to the feeder.
Jim held at the ready for several minutes waiting for a clear shot. The Boy Scout belt pulls the Browning semiautomatic .243 tight into his shoulder and Jim’s crosshairs patiently wait. Cold water gets poured down his back, trying to cool him off. The other bull finally moves. Jim whispers, “Okay, go ahead. Take the safety off.” The first shot hit true, just behind the shoulder. A second shot hit about an inch and a half below it. That stag ran about 10 feet and fell into a bed of cactus.
Jim’s room is full of hunting trophies he’s collected over the past few decades. He has so many; he’s run out of wall space. There are some ram horns piled in a corner, under various deer antlers. There is a full cougar mount that he stores his shoes under. On his walls though are game heads that hold records for their girth, antlers, horns and tusks. However, not one of these trophies is nearly as impressive as Jim’s encyclopedic memorization of ballistics charts, his passion for hunting or the way he lives to be out in the woods again. He simply lives from one hunt to the next.
When you watch Jim shoot, you’ll see adaptation every step of the way–the brace, the Boy Scout belt attached to the butt of the rifle and looped around his shoulder, or how the old school desk across his lap has a rod and a makeshift rifle rest sticking up from it.