Jim Berg went to Virginia Military Institute on a football scholarship after setting New Jersey high school records for rushing. Before graduating, professional football teams talked to him about playing after his military discharge.
It never happened. In 1970, on a dirt road in Cambodia, he tripped a mine. "My main idea was to play professional football," Berg said, without a shred of regret, from the Prescott Veterans Affairs Medical Center lobby where he has volunteered 8-9 hours a day, four days a week, for the past 20 years. "But I had to find out if I could do it, if I had the strength and courage to do it."
Berg said he wasn't interested in military service, but had given his verbal acceptance to VMI before the College of William and Mary and Rutgers University offered scholarships. He enjoyed the competitiveness of the Army and decided to make it a career. He needed combat experience, so he asked to go to Vietnam.
After his injury, doctors told his wife that he wouldn't live a week. It took a year in the hospital to heal the broken bones, burst eardrum, collapsed lung, and extensive damage to his head.
While in Walter Reed Hospital, an officer told him he was sending Berg to a different VA hospital to be medically retired.
"I said, 'The hell you will. I'm going back to active duty,'" Berg said.
The Pentagon sent Col. Larry Williams to visit Berg, who told him in order to return to duty he would have to meet several requirements, including being able to walk around the hospital building unassisted. Twice.
"A month later, Col. Williams put me in a private room with a phone, and said, 'I'm going to call you every morning at 6 a.m. to make sure they're taking care of you,'" Berg said, adding he was to call Williams every evening.
A year later, Berg successfully met all requirements, and with leg braces and a quad cane he returned to active duty in Fort Knox, Texas, where he also learned to golf one-handed. The left side of his body remains partially paralyzed.
"I was a captain then and instructed recruits in armored tactics and strategy. I would climb up on a tank and point out where everything was," he said.
His leg braces got caught in the machinery.
"Gen. Patton - son of Gen. George S. Patton - said he was going to get me a different job. So I worked at a desk job doing administrative work," Berg said, noting he earned a masters degree in counseling then.
Twice passed over for promotion to major, Berg left after nearly 12 years in the Army, which had a move-up-or-out policy. He worked in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs for jails and hospitals, and with Home Place Ministries with runaways and homeless clients.
In 1994, relatives talked him into moving to the Prescott area. A friend suggested he volunteer at the VA. Never one to sit around, Berg maintains he was given a second chance in life and that means giving back to others.
"As long as I don't give up - and I never will - I just keep getting up every day; it gives me a purpose," he said.
He has four adult children and four grandchildren. Sharon, his wife of 27 years, drives him to "work" every day from Prescott Valley, and he finds a ride home with friends.
He said his wife has been a tremendous support because she understands his disabilities.
His friend Rich Koslowski drives him to church activities. Koslowski said he never has met a man who was more self-determined than Jim Berg.
A typical day at the VA involves a lot of walking. The hospital recently assigned Berg a motorized scooter, which he rides only when his legs hurt late in the day.
"All things work together for good. I look around and there's always somebody worse off than I am. By helping others, it's kept me alive."
Posted: Thursday, February 6, 2014
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I have the privilege and honor of knowing and volunteering with Jim. He is a dedicated and sincere person willing to help others any way possible. For one to overcome the adversities as Jim has is incredible. Thank you Jim and all the other veterans for your service and my freedom!! Vietnam Vets.............. WELCOME HOME!!!!!