Hilo chiropractor Dr. Rex Weigel is a source of inspiration and amazement to many.
Weigel lost his right leg and part of the hip and intestines after being hit by a sniper’s bullet as a young Marine on Feb. 22, 1968, in Quang Nam province in Vietnam. His injuries required some 20 surgeries during three years spent in Navy medical facilities in Vietnam, Guam and Oakland, Calif.
Having survived the horrific experience, Weigel could’ve spent the remainder of his life feeling bitter or sorry for himself.
That, however, would be out of character for the 71-year-old Washington state native. Instead, he’s devoted himself to the service of others, as a health care practitioner and an advocate for improvement in society’s and government’s treatment of veterans, with an emphasis health care.
On Friday, at the County Building in Hilo, Mayor Harry Kim, who was an Army medic during the Vietnam War, proclaimed Saturday — the anniversary of the fateful event — as “Rex Weigel Day” in Hawaii County. While presenting Weigel with the proclamation, Kim said he loves Weigel and respects him as highly as he can any person.
“Once in awhile, a community benefits when somebody comes and makes us better, and you have made me better — and a lot of other people. Thank you so much for coming (to Hilo),” Kim told Weigel. Turning to the 20 or so family, friends and professional associates of Weigel in attendance — some from Oahu and the mainland — Kim added, “I know the things he’s done, even when he’s had very little, to make sure that others are taken care of.”
Visibly touched, Weigel said he’s always considered himself “one of the lucky ones, and that’s weird to say.”
“I lost my leg on Feb. 22. On Feb. 23, I could’ve taken a bullet in the brain and we wouldn’t have this conversation today,” Weigel said.
Examining a commemorative coin that came with the proclamation, Weigel quipped, “Do I need to put this in the meter?” That elicited laughter from the gathering — some who, no doubt, had fed a coin or two to the parking meters downstairs moments before.
Kim repeated a story he told at last year’s Veterans Day ceremony in Hilo about Weigel seeing more Marines die at Naval Hospital Guam than on the battlefield in Vietnam.
Weigel then described his 45 days in the Micronesian island’s naval hospital as “quite an experience.”
“You could tell who died during the night because their beds were rolled up,” Weigel said. “… There were probably somewhere between 200 and 240 Marines who died while I was in there.”
“When I got out of boot camp, I was 175 (pounds) — a lean, mean killing machine,” he added. “And when I got to Oakland, I weighed 89 pounds. My friends came down from Washington, and when I saw them, I saw the look on their face. They looked like they were looking at a ghost.
“But I stuck with it. I never lost hope. And although it wasn’t hard for me, I think a lot of people die because they give up hope.”
Weigel said when he was medevaced by Marine helicopter to Naval Support Activities in Da Nang — essentially a Navy MASH unit — his blood pressure was “zero over zero” and he needed to be resuscitated.
Kim described Weigel’s story as “impactful.”
“When we ask people like Rex … to sacrifice their bodies for us, we should make sure they are the best equipped, the best trained. And if they, unfortunately, suffer the wounds of battle as Rex did, we owe them everything … as a government and as a people to make sure that we help them,” Kim said.
“And we haven’t done that.”
Dr. Andrew Sokolsky, a San Francisco chiropractor and Weigel’s close friend, said Weigel “puts his whole focus” on others.
“His whole life is devoted to taking care of other people,” Sokolsky said. “And instead of solely living on his disability, he’s spent the last 50 years doing what he could to serve humanity. And that’s what makes him amazing.”
Weigel said he became a chiropractor because of “phantom limb pain” he described as “a little dog chewing on the bottom of my right foot — and it wasn’t there any more.” One spinal adjustment by a chiropractor made the pain disappear, he added.
Weigel told those in attendance he’s fortunate to live in Hilo, where the community and its politicians “are supportive of the veterans community.” He said if it weren’t for the efforts of officials such as Kim and the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye — who lost an arm during World War II while a member of the Army’s vaunted 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo would likely have been built on Oahu.
“And they drew a line in the sand and said, ‘No. We’ve worked for years to get that here.’ And we’re still trying to get the vets center,” Weigel added, referring to an effort by retired Army Lt. Col Bob Williams, himself and others to develop a veterans service center with outpatient clinic plus senior housing on a 7.5-acre lot directly below the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
“The VA can’t see the beauty in that yet, but hopefully, we’ll build that vets center,” Weigel said.
Reflecting on his life here, Weigel described it as “a beautiful ride.”
“I can’t think of a more wonderful place to take that ride,” he said. ”And I thank the mayor and the people for bestowing this honor on me.
“This is better than any medal I could have won.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.