Years later Mike recounted the ambush to a close friend while teaching Hwa Rang Do in Los Angeles.
“Mike told me about the ambush,” recalls Teresa Carr, who was both a student and an office helper at the HWD dojang Mike was instructing at. “We were sitting outside during a break. He told me when the Americans arrived an officer tried to take his rifle from him. He refused to let it go. He said he had it clutched in his right hand and in his left fist he was clutching the Saint Christopher medal he always wore. Mike said he remembered he was crying and shaking. He was scared to death. Finally, he released the rifle, but he remembered telling the officer he wouldn’t give him his Saint Christopher amulet.”
For his heroic actions during the ambush Mike Echanis was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device on July 15, 1970. His citation reads in part “Despite his numerous wounds, Specialist Echanis continued to fight until the beleaguered truck was relieved. Specialist Echanis’ aggressive spirit and undaunted courage were decisive in preventing the annihilation of the truck and its personnel.”
Recovery and Rehabilitation
Upon aerial medevac Specialist Echanis was sent to the Army 17th Field Hospital and then to the 249th General Hospital in Japan. There his surgeon, reflecting on how young the soldier was, elected not to amputate Mike’s seriously injured right lower leg. Years later Pat Echanis recalls the correspondence with the doctor who offered he wanted to give her son a fighting chance so “he patched him up as best he could and sent him to Letterman Army Hospital”. At Letterman in San Francisco, California, Specialist Echanis would undergo 7 months of grueling surgeries and a complicated casting process that left him exhausted. He went from 150 to 123 pounds during this period.
The weight loss and being bedridden left him emaciated and depressed. The bullet wound to his head resulted in a diagnosis of cephalalgia, or chronic headaches affecting the frontal and temporal areas of his brain. Although his wound to his left foot healed the right foot and calf were badly and permanently damaged. Echanis suffered foot drop with contracture of the third, fourth and fifth toes due to nerve and artery interruption. In addition, he now had vasomotor instability of his right lower leg. He was medically considered crippled.
His cousin, Michael L. Echanis, remembers “Little Mike” describing to him his lack of overall feeling in his right lower leg after his return from Vietnam. “His nerve endings were badly injured by his wounds,” offers “Big Mike” Echanis. “His entire lower right leg was constantly numb, and he lived in chronic pain.”
On December 18, 1970, Mike Echanis was medically retired from military service. The VA in Boise, Idaho, would rate him as being 100% disabled and provide him with a small pension. He returned home with a soft brace for his crippled right lower leg, an orthopedic insert in his right shoe, a cane and an uncertain future as a wounded warrior in the early 1970s. “Mike was never a quitter,” remembers his mother. “He was stubborn even as a little boy. He always told you exactly what he thought. He questioned everything. He was tough.”
Adopted by Frank Echanis, Pat Echanis’ second husband, Mike and his mother were exceptionally close. Today mother and son are buried side by side in Ontario, Oregon. (Author Collection)
For two months the young veteran lived in a basement room in the family home which he seldom left. His friends and family would visit him there and his father, Frank, had a pool table put in the room so Mike could entertain himself and his friends. “He was a great pool player,” offers Frank. “He learned how to play pool here in Ontario before the Army and he could make all the trick shots.” When exactly Mike decided he would learn to walk again is unclear but when he did he asked his mother to get him a pair of soft desert boots, the only footwear he could wear comfortably, and he began teaching himself, step by step. “He used the pool table in his room to support himself,” the family recalls. “He’d brace himself on it and walk around and around it.”
The soft brace meant to reduce the ill-effects of his foot drop condition was tossed aside. Echanis strengthened his upper thigh and hip muscles and in doing so developed a technique where he would flex and tighten his upper right leg as he took a step, literally but discreetly throwing his lower leg and foot forward. In his soft shoes and with great will power he not only appeared to be walking normally but in time he was able to run again without support. Randy Wanner, who became Mike’s HwaRang Do instructor and a close confidant, described Echanis as having “acquired a bouncing, rolling step” with which he moved swiftly. Even so, without wearing his soft shoes Mike experienced extreme difficulty movement and balance wise to include not being unable to hold himself up when bathing.
Two hometown physicians and friends of the family, Dr. Baker and Dr. Sanders, encouraged Mike to take up weightlifting to increase his potential for recovery. The recommended rehabilitation program included a diet heavy with nutritional supplements and a high intake of protein, most often through homemade milkshakes. Mike enhanced his physical training program by incorporating the anabolic steroid Dianabol, popular in the 1970s among European and American body builders. He went from 123 pounds post hospital care to a healthy two hundred pounds, diligently exercising every day and pushing himself from one physical and mental goal to the next without compromise.