Dave Roever didn’t have to go. The letter of exemption on his nightstand was his ticket back to seminary school. His wife didn’t want him to answer the Draft notice. He didn’t exactly savor the prospect either. But the day he had to decide, a young Marine died, and Dave Roever knew what he had to do.
The radio clicked on as he was drifting somewhere between sleep and awake. A deep voice announcing the young Marine’s death in Vietnam wound its way through the last layers of sleep, and wove its way into his dream. Dave saw a jungle in his mind. He felt like he was there. And he jumped up and fell right off the bed, onto the floor.
“Baby” he told his sweet young bride, “I have to go. A young Marine died for me this morning.”
He held her close the morning he left. All these years later, he can still remember the taste of her tears as he made her a promise he knew he couldn’t keep. “I’ll be back without a scar on me,” he told her before he let her go.
Eight months later, in a jungle far from home, an enemy sniper broke Dave’s promise.
The sniper’s bullet – presumably intended for Dave’s head – exploded into the phosphorous grenade clutched in Dave’s right hand, 6 inches from his head.
The Navy Special Warfare Combat Crewman Sailor (SWCC), who’d earned a Purple Heart just days ago, was burning from the inside out. He lurched into the water as the flesh literally melted off his body.
The right side of Dave’s head; his ear, his eye, his lips – it was all gone.
Somehow, Dave made it to shore, where he fell to his knees. A glance down at his chest revealed the unimaginable. He could see his heart, now exposed, pumping in his chest. He could then see his blood shoot out from his dangling right wrist, and the gap where his fingers had been.
Medics declared him KIA as he fell to the ground. He was loaded onto a stretcher, with phosphorous still seeping through his body. Gravely injured, he was still conscious but unable to speak or move. He was flat on his stomach, and the phosphorous leaking out of him burned the stretcher straight through, sending Dave face first into the ground.
“It was just one of those days,” Dave laughs as he retells this story, “where nothing was going right.”
There is genuine bemusement in his voice, 49 years later, every time he tells this incredible story of tragedy, survival, and triumph. Humor, he knows, is an invaluable weapon against lethal adversaries like depression, self-pity, and hopelessness, and Dave has armed millions of young men and women with this weapon in the decades since he was carried out of that jungle.
As much as his humor helps him turn the tables on his trauma, it shields listeners from having to suffer through his story, allowing them to rejoice in it, instead. He makes it look easy but this is no small feat, and demonstrates the sheer strength of the man.
He cracks a joke about scaring the wits out of the medic and pilot in that Dustoff chopper, as he managed to plug the hole in his throat long enough to gasp, “Medic!”
The medic leapt and the pilot freaked. Dave straight-out laughs as he deadpans, “I thought we were going to crash, and now I’d be the only survivor!”
He even manages to find humor in his failed attempt to end his own life, when he saw himself in a mirror just days after the explosion.
At first, the emotions attached to those feelings of sheer despair, hopelessness, and horror pour through his words, into his voice, and into the listener as Dave Roever remembers what it was like to see himself – the mutilated monstrosity he saw in that mirror was more than he could bear.
Dave Roever didn’t want to die he said – but he didn’t want to live, either.
And his wife should not have to deal with this. So he pulled hard at the tube keeping him alive, until he got it out. He then laid back and waited to die….. “and I got hungry” he laughs. “I’d pulled out the feeding tube by mistake – you can die that way but it’s going to take awhile!”
His wife Brenda walked into the room mere moments after Dave watched a woman walk up to the dying man beside him, toss a wedding ring on the bed, and walk away. Certain he was about to experience the same, desperate to die before she saw him, Dave watched Brenda walk over to him.
He could hardly believe it when his wife leaned over, looked him in his one eye, and told him she loves him.
“Angels do not always have wings on their back. Sometimes they give wings to your hope,” Dave says.
His own angel is still by his side, all these years later. Dave Roever has had 55 surgeries in 49 years. In one of his first surgeries, phosphorous still smoldering inside him ignited as he lay on the operating table. Just last year he had his most recent surgery, where he received something most of us never pause to be grateful for – a nose. “It’s a boy!” he jokes as he shares the sheer delight of simply having a nostril again. Ditto for eyelids – he no longer suffers pain from his unprotected eye drying out – and lips, as he no longer drools.
Humor, gratitude, faith, resilience; each is a strong presence in this Vietnam veteran who first fought for his country, and then fought to survive.
He makes sure not to waste any of the pain he has experienced, using his story instead as the tip of the arrow he shoots straight into the darkness, and lighting up lives around the world.
The first place Dave turned his light back into is one no one would imagine. While he was still bleeding, before he had recovered from his injuries, Dave Roever turned around and offered his help to the people in Vietnam.
It was 1974. The country was still at war and “I was mutilated, horrible to look at – and I didn’t care” he says.
A SWCC Sailor forever, Dave straightens in his seat. His shoulders square. His eyes- even the one that isn’t real – seem to flash as he proclaims:
“I hadn’t finished my job in Vietnam, and I had something I had to do. I went there to bring liberty, peace, and freedom.”
The young Sailor who’d been carried out of Vietnam, away from the war this country was losing, returned a Victor and won that war in different ways. He was integral in building a cardiac care hospital, offering life-saving treatment to thousands of Vietnamese people over the years.
Today, Dave says, “We have a miracle in Vietnam,” with over 59,000 students registered in his online school of ministry.
When the M16 didn’t bring victory, Dave says, he went back with John 3:16, and claimed a different kind of victory – one that ensures the 59,000 lives lost and the countless lives impacted by this war are not for naught.
He’s been back several times since, building relationships and opening doors for Vietnam Veterans to find healing and closure on still-gaping emotional wounds.
High schools across the country clamor for Dave to come speak to students. The Department of Defense (DOD) pulled Dave in immediately after 9/11, sending thousands of young active duty personnel fresh from combat, to Dave’s programs. He’s reached out to families of the fallen, injecting them with a renewed reminder that life after loss is still worth living fully.
Dave Roever could be bitter, but instead he is grateful.
He is grateful for every piece of him that is restored physically, and has a joke for pretty much each one of those parts. He is grateful for his wife Brenda, whose love pulled him back from the brink. And he is grateful to live free in this mighty country that he personally fought, and bled, and burned for.
He has his own dream for this country – that it awakens from its slumber to recognize the value of freedom and reverse the flow of damage done by political rifts. Too many people fought to create and defend this nations. Too many died, and too many sacrificed too much, for it to be taken for granted.