Vietnam war hero Charlie Wilson of Gilbert

Though he is 87, Vietnam war hero Charlie Wilson of Gilbert, center, cares for his wife, Mary, who suffers from dementia, Hospice of the Valley volunteer Gayle Byrd helps with groceries.

The day after Christmas, Charlie Wilson was reflecting upon the hardest day of his life. 

Dec. 26 marked the 50th anniversary of the deadliest sea disaster of the Vietnam War. 

Wilson – the 87-year-old husband and caregiver of his wife, Hospice of the Valley patient Mary Wilson – was the captain of Merchant Marine vessel SS Badger State. 

The ship was bound for Vietnam in late 1969, when its cargo of bombs unexpectedly detonated.  

William R. Benedetto’s 2005 book, “Sailing into the Abyss: A True Story of Extreme Heroism on the High Seas,” describes the tragedy:

 “When two colossal storms converged on their vessel, the bombs began to come loose in their cargo holds… and then the unthinkable happened – an explosion rocked the ship, blasting a hole through its hull and forcing Wilson to sound the abandon ship signal. 

“To add to the crew’s danger, another bomb sank their fragile lifeboat. On their own amid the punishing waves, the men were defenseless when huge, normally harmless albatrosses inexplicably turned vicious and attacked them as they floated helplessly in the freezing waters of the North Pacific.”            

Only 14 of 40 people survived, including Wilson. 

“The only reason I fought to live was to tell my story. And I did, in front of the Coast Guard,” he said. 

Though he was exonerated and praised for his heroic actions to save his crew, Wilson feels responsible for the tragedy, a victim of “survivor’s guilt.”

 “I was the captain. I was in charge of that ship. I lost 26 men,” he says. “It tears my heart out.”

But the Gilbert resident has found encouragement and empathy in the hospice team that helps him care for his wife.

 Hospice of the Valley chaplain Nick Martrain brings communion to Mary, 84, a devout Catholic who has lived with Alzheimer’s disease for several years. 

“I pray with her. She moves her lips to the Lord’s Prayer,” Matrain said. 

Then he sits down with Charlie and they bond over history, sports and the thing that is always heavy on his heart.

“Nick and I can reminisce about old times,” said Wilson, who also served with the Navy during the Korean War. 

He appreciates the chaplain’s listening ear and genuinely enjoys the company. The two often finish each other’s sentences. 

It’s a friendship that energizes him.

Despite being wheelchair-bound, Wilson still does the cooking, cleaning and laundry. 

“His dedication to his wife is unbelievable!” Nick exclaimed. “Even when he can’t walk, he’s taking care of her. It’s true love. I’m inspired when I come here.” 

As the rest of his hospice team arrives, Charlie starts cracking jokes.

 “I’m sure glad I vacuumed the rug before you guys came,” Wilson will say.

His good humor tickles Dr. Vandana Sinha and nurse Wendy Hendrickson, who check in on Mary. When volunteer Gayle Byrd pops in to drop off groceries, she said, “He always asks for 24 bananas.” 

A Hospice of the Valley nursing assistant visits Mary three times a week, allowing Charlie’s weary body and mind to take a break and recharge. 

Caregiving is exhausting, but Charlie displays the same kind of integrity and bravery he showed on that doomed voyage 50 years ago, trying to save his crew. He will not let Mary down.

He recalls the vows he made to her. “I made a promise to have and to hold in sickness and in health.” 

And he’s determined to be a hero when another important date rolls around soon – their golden anniversary.

Want to help honor veterans? Hospice of the Valley has specially trained volunteers who have not only served our country in uniform but are committed to saluting our veterans from every generation, who are facing end of life. 

These volunteers make tribute visits to veteran patients at the bedside, bestowing a special pin and giving a flag to hov.org/volunteer/saluting-our-veterans. For information on hospice, palliative and dementia care services, call 602-530-6900.  

Lin Sue Cooney is director of community engagement at not-for-profit Hospice of the Valley.