Smerconish: A second chance for a Vietnam vet

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By Michael Smerconish, Hardball guest host

Let me finish tonight with a story about changing times.

Thirty years ago, David Christian attempted to pursue a law degree after returning home from the war in Vietnam. He’d been through hell, and the last place he expected to face more of it was in academia. But the climate in the late 1960s and early 1970s was often inhospitable to those who served in that war, even the most highly decorated.

Christian had first enlisted in the Army paratroopers at 17. He was the youngest second lieutenant in Army history at 18, then the youngest first lieutenant and the youngest captain.

The wounds he sustained in many Vietnam battles drove him into retirement at the age of 21. He had been shot in the back, chest, both legs and left arm. He was paralyzed in his right hand, received napalm burns on 40 percent of his body, and spent six years in hospitals recovering.

He earned seven Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, the Air Medal, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry.

After he was sufficiently rehabbed, Christian graduated from Villanova University in just 19 months and then enrolled at the Rutgers University Law School in Camden in 1973.

But this was a different time.

Because of opposition to the Vietnam War and antipathy towards those who fought it, Christian said the faculty made a circus of his attempt to earn a law degree.

He told me certain deans disputed the existence and severity of his war injuries. He remembers faculty members posting lists of purported Vietnam heroes that would include the names of the North Vietnamese. He recalls being in constant pain, which required him to consume a steady diet of medication.

He received little sympathy from his law school and dropped out just a few credits shy of graduating. Two years ago - more than three decades after he left - his daughter Colleen contacted Rutgers to see if her dad could return.

Christian was re-admitted, studied for a year, and yesterday graduated at age 62. Where his classmates use personal computers in class, Christian sticks with blue books. They sometimes look at him “like an antique,” he says now.

These are indeed different times. But for one of the most decorated law school graduates in American history, that’s probably a good thing.

Smerconish: A second chance for a Vietnam vet

Updated