Before he was knocked out for seven days, John McLernon was driving a familiar road near his home in Panama.
But while driving about 45 mph and approaching a curve, his eyes wandered.
One of his big Bridgestone tires hit a rock and flipped the car over.
That’s all he remembers about the accident one year ago that nearly killed him and damaged his spine, making him a quadriplegic.
McLernon said he lost 30 pounds in as many days. He needed to find a way back to the United States for treatment.
He called Tom and Barbara Dorsey, who were 4,000 miles away in the village of Walworth.
Tom and McLernon grew up as friends in Delavan and joined the Army together under the buddy system. Now, the man with whom Tom had played Little League and built snow forts was looking at never moving his arms or legs again.
They decided to help him get back to the United States.
To make that happen, the Walworth couple soon entered what felt like a logistical nightmare. Did McLernon have the proper medical tests? How would they translate his health records? Who could help him get on a plane?
“We were at wits’ end,” Tom said. “Every time we’d hear something positive, it’d blow up in our face. And we were running out of ideas.”
So, Tom and Barbara reached out to Nathan Bond, the veterans service officer for Walworth County.
“And to be honest with you, I wasn’t absolutely positive what to do,” Bond said.
But he had to find a way.
‘Laughing and joking and worrying’
After Tom moved to Delavan as a kid, he and his buddy McLernon did everything together: hunting, trapping, fishing and golfing. Their mothers played cards together.
Tom said as he and McLernon got older, they drank and partied together.
“They both have a ridiculous sense of humor,” Barbara said. “They joke a lot.”
During the summer when McLernon was 18, he went to Beloit and enlisted in the Army. Tom joined him.
After boot camp in Georgia, Tom said, the two ended up at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. While they were in different groups, that didn’t stop them from goofing off together.
Tom and McLernon hitchhiked to St. Louis for a night and tried to get into taverns even though they were underage. (They found a way to get some drinks in them, Tom said.)
Roll call, however, was at 4:30 a.m. Monday, and the two had trouble getting back.
“We were afraid they were gonna call us AWOL and this and that,” Tom said. “And we were laughing and joking and worrying. … But we did make it.”
They were “naïve idiots,” Tom said, and he was under the impression they would be together for their whole enlistments. But that was not the case. Tom was sent to Vietnam on Christmas Eve 1966, and McLernon went to Germany.
The two got out of the service in July 1969, Tom said. They came back and worked at the same company in Janesville.
But McLernon eventually moved away. Even after leaving, Tom said, his buddy wrote letters telling him about how good the fishing was wherever he went.
“We always kept in touch no matter where he was,” Tom said.
“Where he was,” however, soon meant a lot farther away than he had been since their military service.
McLernon retired and, after some research online, moved to Panama in 2008. He fit most of his belongings into three bags.
He didn’t know Spanish, but he eventually met a woman and married her.
Then came a curve in the road.
Lying in bed for months in McLernon’s condition was, for one thing, boring.
But his uncertain future brought stress.
Doctors told him he would never walk again. Twice a week, he said, he went outside into a big barrel of water to be cleaned.
He felt helpless. He felt hopeless.
Tom and Barbara desperately reached out to politicians and other officials. Someone had to know how they could get McLernon home, right?
Tom said they tried to get him into a military hospital, but he wasn’t on active duty nor was it a service-related injury.
No affordable hospital nearby was equipped to treat McLernon’s severe injuries, Tom said.
They had to get him back to the United States.
Tom said they had no luck asking the embassy to translate McLernon’s medical records, which took several attempts to acquire.
But Bond and the Dorseys found some generosity. Bond said Southern Wisconsin Interpreting & Translation Services in Delavan dropped the price from $5,000 to $1,500. Some local veterans groups donated “quite a bit,” and Bond and his wife paid $500.
Bond then set up McLernon to gain entry into the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, which involved some back-and-forth getting documents signed from Panama back to Wisconsin.
All the while, Tom kept telling his buddy to hang in there. The process takes time.
Finally in November, everyone got the OK for McLernon to enter King.
But getting a quadriplegic man from Central America to Wisconsin proved uncomfortable and challenging. A friend McLernon had in Panama who helped with the process told him if he needed to quit and go back, he could.
But McLernon, with help from the friend, in December landed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.
Someone had to pick him up, though. Bond rented a van in Brookfield and drove to the airport to get McLernon, who came through customs at about 1 a.m. that December morning.
“I was very relieved to be in Chicago,” McLernon said.
From afar, Bond said he had a “detached intellectual understanding” of McLernon’s condition at the time.
“But then, when you’re there with this person, ... then is when there’s now an emotional understanding of, ‘This gentleman is gonna be completely relying on you to get him safely to his destination,” Bond said.
“There was still very much a mission mindset of, ‘Let’s get this accomplished.’”
McLernon’s re-entry into the U.S. wasn’t the most emotional moment for Bond, though. It was after the drive to King, when Bond could finally see McLernon get the care he desperately needed.
That’s when it hit.
“Yeah, that was, that was a very emotional moment for me,” he said.
Having his buddy back in the state where they grew up felt special for Tom.
“It was like a big Christmas present,” Tom said with a laugh. “We were so happy to finally get him back.”
In March, Tom and Barbara went to visit McLernon at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center unit for spinal injuries—where he was transferred after King.
Barbara almost didn’t recognize him.
Still, Tom said, his buddy was happy—as were they. McLernon looked better than Tom thought he would, given some of the pictures they had seen.
Tom said he had not seen McLernon since before he moved to Panama.
“It was fun. It was nice to see him,” Tom later said in his home. “We laughed and giggled, told some jokes.”
Just like old times?
Mentally, McLernon said he’s “doing very well.” McLernon spoke with The Gazette while a hospital staff member held a phone to his ear.
He said he has come to terms with his legs being paralyzed.
But he’s working two hours a day with an apparatus to get more use from his arms—brushing his teeth, feeding himself, combing his own hair. He wants to write again or use a keyboard. Who would have imagined that six months ago?
It’s not lost on him—all the calls Bond made to arrange his entry into the facilities, all the times Tom reassured him to hang in there.
“It means $100 million worth of care for me,” he said.
Without Bond, none of it would have been possible, Tom and Barbara repeated. If not for the veterans service officer’s work, McLernon might not be alive today.
“He (Bond) was our only link to get anything done—our only hope,” Barbara said.
She called Bond a “saint.”
“He’s got a heart this big,” Tom said, spreading his arms.
So the Walworth couple Dec. 21 wrote to county officials to let them know what Bond did for their friend.
The Walworth County Board at its Feb. 12 meeting recognized Bond and his staff for their “outstanding customer service to veterans and their families.”
“And I would just like to congratulate you and thank you because I know that you folks just really carry out a wonderful program,” county board Chairwoman Nancy Russell said.
Bond said he served nearly 25 years in the Army. Early on, he was called to active duty for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Coming out of the service, he applied for a lot of jobs. None of them had the purpose and meaning he was looking for.
So he found the position in Elkhorn.
Bond, originally from New Hampshire, started in March 2013 as a specialist in Walworth County. He was promoted to veterans service officer—a position that all 72 counties and federally recognized tribes have by statute—in August 2015.
Bond said everything he did for McLernon was part of the job. He praised his staff’s help on this case and all others. It’s a job that calls for extra effort, such as giving a veteran a last-minute ride or completing an application on a weekend.
“Your experience with Nathan and our Veterans Service Office is not unique,” County Administrator David Bretl wrote in response to the Dorseys, adding that Bond is “relentless” in following through with cases.
McLernon’s “mission,” however, is only 95 percent complete, Bond said. The work continues because they’re trying to bring McLernon’s wife to the country.
“Whatever John needs—he’s a Walworth County veteran—so we’ll do our best to help him and his family achieve their goals,” Bond said.
Between veterans, Bond said, there’s an unspoken “I understand you.” It’s a shared mindset among those who have served in the military.
Bond understood Tom when he said, “You never leave a man behind.”
Tom didn’t want his buddy left behind.
“He (was) down in Panama, stuck,” Tom said. “That’s no different than laying out in the field with a bullet in his head. You still pick him up and bring him home.
“And Nathan was right on board with that. He understood what I was talking about.”