BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. (AP) — Sharing a combined 53 years of military service, Siri Sophar and her husband, John Fontanes, aren't your typical Army husband and wife.
Both are disabled veterans who made their own unique sacrifices while serving their country. Fontanes, wounded twice during the Vietnam War, sacrificed his body, losing a leg after stepping on a land mine. Sophar sacrificed a lucrative, globe-trotting career to join the Army in a last-ditch effort to ensure her severely disabled son continued receiving health care coverage.
A native of the Bronx, Fontanes' military career began in 1955 when, at the age of 19, he traveled to lower Manhattan in an attempt to enlist in the Marines. Short and skinny, Fontanes says he was 110 pounds when soaking wet. Turned down by the Marines, he next tried to join the U.S. Navy, but again was turned away.
"I'm feeling really bad by that time, but at the end of the hall, there was this guy with a bulldog neck ... He looked like the typical sergeant from the Army," Fontanes said.
A stack of forms and a physical later, Fontanes found himself being inducted into the Army.
He spent the next 21 years on active duty and another 22 years as a member of the National Guard. A member of the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division, also known as "The Big Red One," Fontanes arrived in Vietnam in 1964.
Of the original 258 members of his company, only 53 made it back home alive. All 53 surviving members were wounded in the war and were awarded the Purple Heart.
Fontanes was first wounded when he was struck by a sniper's bullet while on patrol. He didn't realize he was hit until one of the men in his company told him he was bleeding. The bullet struck Fontanes in the back, exiting under his armpit and traveling through his arm.
"I went like this and lifted up my arm and said 'Well I'll be darned.' The blood was just coming down," Fontanes said.
Moments later, Fontanes passed out and the next thing he remembered was waking up in an Army hospital as a nurse with a French accent stood over him. Fontanes could have been evacuated then, but he refused. Still a young man at the time, he said he felt like he could win the war all by himself. He was allowed to return to his unit, but was wounded again six months later. Fontanes was known as a mustang, meaning he was promoted to an active officer after all of his company's previous officers had been killed. He was wounded a second time while on patrol again, this time losing his leg after he inadvertently stepped on an enemy mine.
"I just heard something go click and that was it," Fontanes said.
Fontanes spent the next two years in recovery, being transferred from hospital to hospital before finally arriving in Texas. Fontanes became one of the first amputees who was allowed to return to active duty.
A third-generation member of the Army and a depression-era baby, Fontanes said he wanted to return to active duty because, at the time, he was unaware of what benefits he might be entitled to and he was afraid that he would no longer be able to support his family.
"When I was a kid, I remember veterans on corners in wheelchairs selling pencils ... I thought that was going to happen to me," Fontanes said.
His path eventually crossed with his future his wife while he was working at the Army education center at Fort Sam Houston, where Sophar was also facing the frightful prospect of losing her benefits. The path that led Sophar to the military was much different than her husband's. She joined the Army at the age of 33 in 1979.
"I was no spring chicken. One of the reasons I joined-there were several reasons, but one of the main reasons was I had a severely disabled son," Sophar said.
While she had a well-paying career at the time, there were caps on her private medical insurance and the coverage for her son, Kelly, was quickly running out. Faced with a dilemma, she decided to take a drastic pay cut and sign up for military service.
"One of things that I knew was that the military didn't have any caps on insurance. They didn't worry about pre-existing conditions, so I joined for him," Sophar said.
While not exactly the youngest recruit, Sophar was a valuable asset. An extremely bright student at an early age, Sophar graduated from high school early and had been trained in computers since she was a child. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957, it shocked many in the U.S. and fed growing concerns about the perceived technological gap between the two Cold War superpowers.
Sophar was among 30 students who became part of a special program called the University of Maryland Mathematics Project. She was trained in computer science from the age of 12 until she graduated high school.
Sophar's hero was U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, the mother of computer science. Sophar wanted to join the Navy because of her, but she was too young and her parents wouldn't sign her up. She eventually became an international manager of standards and procedures for a pharmaceutical house, a job which took her to Paris, among other European cities.
After joining the Army and surviving boot camp, Sophar's background made her perfectly suited for a career in military intelligence.
"I did a lot of things in the Army. Because I'm multi-lingual and because I was a computer scientist in civilian life, I started out in military intelligence. In those days, (being fluent in) German was important because it was still the Cold War and there was still an East Germany," Sophar said.
Trained as an interpreter and interrogator, she took part in countless field training exercises and war games with U.S. special forces, during which she underwent survival training and training on how to endure being a prisoner of war and torture. Eventually, the grueling training began to take a toll on her and her body.
"I got tired of being hung upside down and being tortured," Sophar said jokingly.
That's how she arrived at Fort Sam Houston and how she eventually met Fontanes. She was looking for a new job in the military and the Army was in desperate need of nurses.
"I had been pre-med in college and they needed nurses," said Sophar. "I said OK, so they sent me to Fort Sam Houston to become a nurse. That's where I ended up, but it was kind of fun being in military intelligence except when you were hung upside down."
Eventually, as her own health began to worsen and with her son still needing continuing health coverage, Sophar began to fear that she would be left without the benefits she still needed when discharged.
"I found out that she was having problems with her military retirement," said Fontanes. "I managed to assist her and get her retirement. She was almost in tears saying 'What can I do? I'm going to be discharged'."
What followed next was a courtship that lasted two years. Thanks to Fontanes' help, Sophar's son continued receiving health benefits until he passed away 10 years ago.
"The Army took care of him until the day he died, for which I am extraordinarily grateful," Sophar said.
Today, the couple lives happily at their home in Berkeley Springs.
"One of the things he says to me, which is a real compliment to me, is he says that he couldn't be married to anyone else but another veteran," Sophar said.
Information from: The Journal, http://journal-news.net/