Ex-Marine, Navy nurse share friendship forged during war
By Pat Sherman

April 22, 2006

The last time Sandy Holmes saw Eddie Beesley was four decades ago. The young Marine was recovering from a land mine blast that took both his legs.

The staff at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland did its best to speed the recovery of Beesley and other troops who had lost limbs.

“It took a while, because most of them were infected,” said Holmes, the ward's head nurse.

Holmes, then 22, and Beesley, a 19-year-old Marine corporal, spent nine months together. Holmes caring for the troops, chatting with them, making their lives as comfortable as she could. Beesley trying to move on with life and struggling to understand why he survived the blast and others didn't.

The retired Navy nurse and the Vietnam War veteran met yesterday at the San Diego Naval Medical Center to share memories of forging a friendship from the anguish of war.

Beesley lost his legs Aug. 31, 1965. His battalion had been guarding an airstrip during Operation Starlight, the first major battle of the Vietnam War. The mine also killed his lieutenant – a young man from North County – and a corporal.

Beesley spoke yesterday at the medical center to a group of Marines recuperating from injuries sustained in Iraq. He recently published a memoir about his life, “Lucky Enough.” He was in town to join Holmes for a panel discussion on the Vietnam War scheduled for last evening at Palomar College in San Marcos.

Reminiscing about their time at Oak Knoll, the two friends recalled happy times, such as a fellow on the ward named Danny.

“Was he the blond-headed kid?” Beesley asked.

“Yeah,” said Holmes, who settled in Escondido after being transferred to the county with the Navy.

“I made the big mistake of telling him he had the neatest freckles I had ever seen,” Holmes said. “They were gray, and it turns out they were powder burns.”

The two also recounted more sobering moments, such as the suicide of a patient.

Holmes, who retired from the Navy in 1990, said she recalled Beesley as being “kind of spunky, rambunctious and a little irreverent.”

The amputee ward at Oak Knoll was Holmes' first assignment.

“It's rather intimidating for someone whose just graduated from school,” Holmes said. “A lot of the patients were still very much a Marine and very well-mannered. Ed was just on the cutting edge of that, but he was in no way obnoxious.”

Beesley said his sense of humor and spirit sustained him during his time at Oak Knoll and throughout his life, driving him to obtain his degree and to start his own business, which helped make vehicles accessible to wheelchairs.

“I was one of the old guys (at Oak Knoll), though I was still 19,” Beesley said. “I'd been around the block. . . . I had to prove I was still a Marine and could take care of myself and still do the things that I wanted to do.

“Of course, I was glad to be alive.”

Holmes first reconnected with Beesley through e-mail four years ago, after reading about him in a memoir by the widow of Lt. James Mitchell, a San Dieguito High School graduate and Palomar College alumnus. Mitchell, 25, was killed in the same blast that took Beesley's legs.

The memoir was “The Last Stamp: Remembering a Remarkable Young Man” by Jan Mitchell.

Beesley's own book was inspired by a trip he took to the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1995, to view the inscription of Mitchell's name. The journey helped him deal with the survivor guilt he had harbored for years.

“He cared for his men,” Beesley said of Mitchell. “He was always wanting to put me in leadership positions.”

Holmes said that before reading the book about Mitchell, she had known little about how Beesley had been injured. Neither he nor the other two men in the ward injured in the explosion had spoken much about it.

“We were there just to get well and to try to find girls,” Beesley said with a laugh.

On that count, he succeeded. With him in San Diego this weekend is his wife, Connie, whom he also met at Oak Knoll. Her father was a Navy corpsman, and she would frequently visit patients.

While speaking with Marines yesterday, Beesley handed out copies of his book.

“His story is awesome,” said Capt. Paola Hayes. “It's motivating for these guys to listen to somebody who's been through what he has and gone on to lead a fulfilling life.”

Pat Sherman: (760) 737-7556; pat.sherman@uniontrib.com