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Grenade shrapnel removed successfully from Vietnam veteran after 51 years

"You just have to live with it. Just kind of like a Marine, you suck it up and go on," Willie Fulfer says of the military doctor advice he got back in 1971.

FORT WORTH, Texas — A Vietnam veteran from Weatherford, thanks to doctors at Baylor Scott & White, has finally rid himself of one painful memory of his time at war: a piece of grenade shrapnel that he has unwillingly played host to for 51 years.

"There are things I will never forget. And things that I wished hadn't happened, said Willie Fulfer, 73, of his time in Vietnam as a Marine scout sniper. He was part of a special Combined Action Program (CAP) unit where Marines teamed up with local forces to form a village defense platoon. 

But, on a night mission, he remembers vividly the grenade that landed next to him. 

"Well it was one our ours, but they threw it," he said of the enemy that found a U.S. grenade and used it against American forces.

He says he curled into a ball, turned away from the grenade, and found out his flak jacket worked. It saved him from nearly every piece of shrapnel.

"26," he said of the pieces of shrapnel they recovered. "We dug 'em out. I mean I took my knife and dug pieces out of the flak jacket."

But piece number 27 snuck under the bottom of the flak jacket and embedded in the muscle an inch from his spine. And that's where military doctors told him it would have to stay.

"They didn't want to operate because it was next to the backbone," he said. "Nothing I can do about it. You just have to live with it. Just kind of like a Marine, you suck it up and go on."

And so, he did, for 51 years. Most of those years, he lived in pain and on disability.

"I came back a very upset, angry person," he said of the not unusual impact the Vietnam War had on Marines and soldiers like himself.

Until a trip to Baylor Scott & White All Saints in Fort Worth, where he met Dr. Atif Haque.

"Yeah it was really like a needle in a haystack," Haque said.

He needed to operate on a bulging disc in Willie's lower back. The pain had become intense and, with shooting pains down one leg, he was having trouble walking on his own. And, while he was in the area, so to speak, Dr. Haque decided it was worth the risk to remove the 51-year-old rusted, half-pea-sized passenger too.

"What I think is improving his situation is we took the herniated disc out. This is more of, I don't know, a sentimental kind of thing to have this friend of 51 years out, you know," said Haque. 

Credit: Baylor Scott & White All Saints

The successful surgery happened in late May. Now, for the first time in years, Willie can walk unassisted, unless of course he chooses to hold hands with his wife at the same time as he did outside Baylor Scott & White All Saints after a recent checkup.

"I must commend the hospital," he said. "They were all professional and took very good care of me."

Credit: Baylor Scott & White All Saints

As for that piece of that grenade, he plans to put it in a display case next to his Purple Heart at home in Weatherford.

"Well it's part of me, what I went through. I can look at it and say that caused me a lot of pain," he said with a relieved laugh.

We met, by the way, in a hospital courtyard called the Garden of Hope. Fitting, perhaps, since hope is exactly what the hospital gave him by removing one painful memory.

"But we served. I guess if young enough, and called upon again, I would do the same thing. Just a glutton for punishment I guess," Willie said as he laughed again.

Although, he is glad that some of those 51 years of punishment can spend its time sitting on a shelf instead.

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