CLIFTON — Sgt. Robert Clark had a drink, watched a firefight from afar and turned in after a 12-hour security shift at the Da Nang air base in Vietnam in October 1970.
Then the rockets came.
They struck a two-story barracks where he’d taken refuge for the night. It collapsed, pinning him beneath a cement slab for several hours — and haunting his mind and body ever since.
“I just couldn’t move and wanted to get out,” said Clark, 65. “Even now, I hate that feeling where I’m trapped and I can’t do anything.”
Now, a small non-profit veterans group is helping Clark, who is paralyzed, avoid those feelings in his own home. Homes for Veterans is renovating a kitchen now poorly fit for his power wheelchair, filling a need not met by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Doug DiPaola, the group’s founder and president, said the Purple Heart recipient deserved an extra hand.
“We are showing how much we appreciate that service,” he said. “He needs to be thanked — and a little bit of help.”
Forty years after the conflict ended, Vietnam War veterans continue to feel its brutal effects. In Clark’s case, his aches and pains from the bunker collapse amplified into severe back pain. And after an unsuccessful surgery, one of his legs became paralyzed. He also continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, claustrophobia and Agent Orange-induced diabetes.
Clark, who served in the Air Force from 1968 to 1972, vividly remembers the night his bunker was blasted.
Although Da Nang, a major base for U.S. and South Vietnamese troops, was hit 240 times that year, the 1970 attack was the first time a barracks was struck. The rocket fire made the hairs on Clark’s arms stand up, and suddenly he was under a pile of rubble and wooden beams that pressed into his back.
Some 20 to 40 soldiers were killed by enemy fire that night. One of the dead, his eyes still open, lay on top of Clark as he awaited rescue.
“I was more scared than anything else,” he said. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”
Initially, Clark apparently had suffered only a broken arm. But after he returned from the war to New Jersey, the incident began to take a more serious toll. First, nightmares and being unable to tolerate tight spaces. Then, in the late 1980s, a crippling back pain.
Several surgeries and a spinal infusion later, he was confined to a wheelchair. He moved from Lyndhurst to Clifton in 1990, and had his new home on Broadale Avenue outfitted with a ramp and a roll-in shower.
A different charity, A Step Toward Hope, funded improvements for Clark’s bathroom a few years ago. But the kitchen was still ill-suited for him.
“I smashed into [cabinets], I ruined the stove, the dishwasher; the doorway’s a little bit too small,” Clark said.