Co-published with WestVirginiaville.com
Dave Evans died in 2020 at age 68 at his home in Antigua, Guatemala, from ailments that could only have been accentuated by his hard-charging existence. Eric Neudel knows where Evans would be today, had he lived longer.
“Dave Evans would be in Ukraine right now trying to figure out how he could help people wounded in the fighting,” he said.
Neudel and filmmaking partner Alison Gilkey crafted the recently released documentary “The Wake Up Call,” profiling the West Virginia native’s notable international life. The film will premiere in West Virginia at 7 p.m. June 23 at the Culture Center in the State Capitol Complex in Charleston WV, as an official event of the citywide 2022 FestivALL Charleston.
The screening trains a lingering spotlight on a remarkable life that ranged far beyond the Kanawha County hills where Evans was raised, and where his father worked underground in the mines.
Neudel and Gilkey’s Massachusetts-based Storyline Motion Pictures took five years to craft the 70-minute documentary on Evans’ globetrotting life, which earned its world premiere in April at the 2022 Boston International Film Festival, where it won “Best Content” among Feature Documentaries.
A glance at the wild arc of Dave Evans’ life story will make it clear that Neudel speaks no hyperbole forecasting what he would be doing today. The “logline,” as they say in Hollywood for an elevator pitch that summarizes a film, might read:
A West Virginia coal miner’s son evades the mines by enlisting in Vietnam, where he loses both legs in an ambush, then the double amputee gets up on prosthetic legs and spends a half-century in conflict zones conjuring arms, hands, and legs for thousands of war victims worldwide.
All the while—and loudly—Evans never hesitated to excoriate the soft-bottom generals, jolly warmongers, and comfortable politicians who seed the landmines, buy the bullets, and hand out armaments that maim generations of civilians and transform soldiers in countries across the planet into cast-off cannon fodder.
Or, as phrased by historian and author John C. Hennen, who will join an on-stage discussion of the documentary after its FestivALL Charleston screening:
“Dave Evans was committed to peace and justice, but he was no pacifist. He was motivated by rage against the architects of ‘the interchangeable wars’ who have betrayed his country’s avowed principles.”
As a West Virginia journalist back in the day, I came to know Dave Evans over the course of decades. I documented in several stories his hemisphere-hopping, and the routinely dangerous work of building and fitting prosthetic legs, hands and arms for thousands of people in far-flung countries, often at the edge of—or in the midst of—war and conflict.
I once asked him to list the places he had worked. He gazed upward, compiling the list in his mind’s eye:
“Nicaragua. El Salvador. Cambodia. Vietnam. Cuba. Sierra Leone. Ethiopia. Angola. And a little time in Tanzania,” he said. “Then, in Iraq and Jordan. And a short time in Syria. The Republic of Georgia.”
He paused. “There’s a lot of countries.”
In fact, he missed a few. His wife, Kee Adams Evans, whom he met and married after moving to Antigua, Guatemala, had a few more to add. Seeking a definitive list after word of Dave’s July 3, 2020 death went out to shocked friends worldwide, I e-mailed her in Guatemala. Where else in the world had Dave toiled, giving so many individuals back a version of their legs, arms, and hands, made of steel and plastic?
So, he forgot to list the following: India, Tajikistan, the West Bank, Peru, Russia, and his own homeland of the United States of America. “He thought it was complete. But he said he could have forgotten some,” said Kee.
And how many people are we talking about? Dave once guesstimated for me how many people around the world he and his teams had helped to walk once more, to hold things again, to amble down the street in the sunshine under their own steam.
Here’s that guesstimate: 20,000 human beings.
A few years ago, right before he was headed to Tanzania, Tajikistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to teach, he told me he had trained more than 1,500 students to become independent prosthetic technicians worldwide. They carry on this work in their homelands in countries throughout the world, from Cuba to Sierra Leone, as you read this.
This was no ordinary life.
Dave enlisted in the Marines in 1969 as the Vietnam War raged on the other side of his world. He was 17. He was not drafted, nor did he contemplate evading the draft that was considered by innumerable young men at the time to be a swift ticket to an appointment with a flag-draped coffin. He was probably driven by his dad the short distance from Cabin Creek in semi-rural Kanawha County to a recruiting office in West Virginia’s capital of Charleston.
In one interview, Dave ticked off for me his reasons for enlisting as the Vietnam War burned through life after life. His reasons seemed unconnected. His dad had spent 17 years in the Navy between stints as a coal miner. Dave had little interest in following in his father’s footsteps down into the earth beneath the rolling green hills where he had been born. Joining the Marines was a ticket out of town.
“It was a job. I was having trouble in high school. A friend of mine had been killed in Vietnam,” he said.
That is the exact sequence of his words. Trouble in high school. A friend killed in ‘Nam. Working class guys training as warriors with other working class guys. Those were the ones who heavily populated the front lines, fighting a war schemed up and executed by politicians and generals who were miles, countries, often continents removed.
Maybe he had some heroic urge to avenge his buddy’s death. Maybe he didn’t know exactly what he was getting into. But it sure would be different, whatever it was that lay on the other side of scribbling his name on a bunch of papers.
Here is something Dave once told filmmaker Suzanne Higgins. He says it on camera in her 2017 West Virginia Public TV documentary, “Vietnam: West Virginians Remember,” which included his experience as a Marine on the front lines in Vietnam.
“When you send an 18-year-old kid to war, and they cross that bridge from peacetime into wartime, there’s no way they ever come back. There’s no way. That bridge is burnt. You’ve changed forever.”
The front line Marine’s assignment was to attract enemy fire. Then a radio operator would call in air support. It was an assignment not for the faint of heart. Only a thin slice of the large number of young Americans drafted into the Vietnam War faced this perilous duty.
Dave was on the front lines in Vietnam in late 1970. He was first trained as a mortarman with Company F, Second Battalion, Seventh Marines. According to a Bronze Star citation the young soldier would earn, as a mortarman he distinguished himself “by his courage and composure under fire.”
In early October, the 18-year-old was reassigned to Company M, Third Battalion, First Marines. On Dec. 4, he led a squad of riflemen in the central highlands north of Danang in a search-and-clear operation to rescue some downed American helicopter pilots.
“We were ambushed,” Dave said simply in one interview about that indelible day.
He took a step alongside a rice paddy, triggering a land mine. An ambush followed instantly. His world exploded, he later wrote. “War and injury came to me in a sudden moment of grenade blast and gunfire.”
He was blown into the air and onto the ground. With the exception of Dave and his radioman, all the members of his squad died that day. “Particularly inspiring,” his Bronze Star citation, notes, is that “he verbally encouraged his companions to continue their mission while he awaited medical attention and evacuation.”
The dry language conceals a brutal scene. The mine blast scissored Dave’s right leg off below the knee. The ambush shattered his lower left leg. Too far gone, it was later amputated on the hospital ship USS Sanctuary.
It must have been a blur—an agonizing, confusing, pain-filled blur—how he got back to West Virginia after his life blew up that day. He was flown by helicopter from the front lines, shipped by military transport across an ocean. Back, eventually, to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, for six months of physical therapy.
At some point he was discharged from the Marine Corps. He landed back amid the hills of home. Back in ‘The Mountain State,’ as West Virginia calls itself. It is an affectionate nickname that sidesteps the hillbilly tropes that dog the state’s designated name. The phrase evokes the nestled safety and reassurance of life amid the ocean waves of its hills.
The former soldier back from war, learning to navigate a mostly rural state in a wheelchair, could not have felt much comfort.
Dave briefly got a job working in the office of Valley Camp Coal Company, in Shrewsbury, W.Va. Maybe his family connections to coal mining helped. At some point he decided to pursue a nursing career.
First, he had to get steady on his feet again, to learn to walk with the prosthetic legs he was being fitted for and figuring out. To adapt, in the meantime, to using a wheelchair, at a time when the needs and rights of people with disabilities were on few radar screens. He got some advice from a friend, a lifelong wheelchair user from childhood polio.
“He owned a little bar up in Chesapeake, West Virginia—Corey’s Drive In,” Dave recalled in one of our interviews. “He said ‘Let me buy you a beer.’”
With a couple of cold brews sweating on the table between them, sipping and small-talking in their wheelchairs, his friend got around to some heart-to-heart advice. “He tells me, ‘It’s going to be very difficult for you. You’ve got to be very careful not to let stuff get under your skin.’”
Dave took this advice to heart.
“That was a big help. That was the first counseling I ever got about being a person with a disability.”
One day in 1974, now up on his prosthetic legs, he came in to have them adjusted at J.E. Hangar Prosthetics and Orthotics in downtown Charleston, W.Va. The owner must have been impressed by how this young man presented himself. He suggested Dave work there part time.
The young man agreed.
Now more confident on his prosthetic legs, Dave swept floors. Cleaned up. Did maintenance. He was good with his hands. In an email from Guatemala, Kee picks up the thread of how a door cracked open on a most unexpected globetrotting career for a coal miner’s kid from West Virginia.
“He had already worked in the coal mine and knew that wasn’t what he wanted to do. He fell in love with the engineering and the idea of prosthetics. He worked a two-year apprenticeship and was accepted to NYU Medical School.”
While learning the art and craft of prosthetics, he was also honing an equally significant art and craft: How to speak his mind to the powers-that-be who held most of the cards and had no real interest in listening.
While recovering in Philadelphia Naval Hospital after returning from Vietnam, he and other disabled vets were contacted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “Because we were the most bitter and sensitive about what went on,” Dave said.
Never shy to hold his tongue when there was something on his mind, he slipped easily into the role of anti-war activist and outspoken, speak-truth-to-power and screw-the-consequences spokesman.
Side by side with his growing profile as a prosthetist, one who was willing to craft limbs for citizens and wounded soldiers alike, he became prominent in the growing anti-war movement in the early 1970s. He teamed up with Bobby Muller and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, along with Vietnam Veterans of America. He learned to say a lot in a few words.
“War,” he once stated in an interview, “is the obscene failure of people’s inability to communicate.”
He was invited to return to Vietnam and later to Central America as part of various delegations that objected to American military intervention fueling the region’s internecine conflicts. He had found a niche. He had found his voice. Here is that voice, from a 2017 story in the Charleston Gazette-Mail in which he advocated a full-bore draft for every young American.
Every single one.
“Everybody—18 years old. Mandatory,” he said. “Two years of national service, regardless of sex, sexual preference, economic or social standing. Everybody goes.”
That would include, he made clear, the daughter of the congressman voting for weapons purchases for another country. And the offspring of the senator voting to dispatch American troops to a faraway land.
“His daughter Suzy is 18? She’s going into the Marine Corps. Sen. Williams’ son is 18? He’s going into the Air Force. They all go serve. Now when you’ve got kids, nieces and nephews, stomping around in a rice paddy somewhere, you might think twice about declaring war,” he said.
A rice paddy. Somewhere.
Been there. Done that.
How about your kids go this next time?
Dave was not a big fellow—maybe 5-foot, 9-inches tall. He had short brown hair and a Tom Selleck mustache. My first encounter with him was in 1985 at J.E. Hangar Prosthetics in West Virginia’s capital. He wore a white lab coat, jeans, and sneakers.
That first time I interviewed him, my photographer captured a telling portrait. It filled a quarter of the page in the Sunday feature I later wrote. It depicts Dave in the back-room shop surrounded by saws, hammers, screwdrivers, and work benches. It looks like he’s in a carpentry shop—an apt comparison since concocting prosthetic limbs is a muscular art and detailed craft.
Dave’s left hand props up the complex contraption he has fashioned—a custom prosthetic leg for a 70-something West Virginia man who had lost a leg from an accident or illness. Dave stares intently at the fitting into which the man’s stump will go. When seated properly, the device would give the old man the ability to stow the crutches he had stamped into the shop on that day, and to walk out under his own steam.
Dave has a laser-focus in his eyes. Studying my faded photocopy of that article from back in the day, it strikes me that I know that look. I have seen it from writing countless profiles of artists and craftspeople at their work when they are in the zone.
The potter at her wheel. The painter at his canvas. The chair-maker, smoothing with a lathe the cherry-wood leg of a chair-to-be.
The maker. Making something worth making.
After his workday had ended, we met in a bar next door for an interview.
“I love my country. But we make a hell of a lot of mistakes.”
These were among the first words out of his mouth. Dave, whose hitch in his walk would leap out at you only if you were looking for it, settled into a booth and ordered a draft beer. He massaged his legs near where they fit into the prosthetic legs below both his knees. They were sore, he said.
He recounted for me the details I’ve reported above, about that day in Vietnam when he went down. The struggles that ensued. The bulk of our interview, though, was about the work he was doing for Salvadoran civilians, rebel fighters, and for government soldiers, too. For, besides the old man and his new leg, Dave’s corner of the Hanger shop included artificial limbs he was building to bring back to Central America.
His was an equal-opportunity mission of mercy.
The Front Lines
If this were a movie—and “The Wake Up Call” helps to cover some of this territory—there would follow a sequence of images. Jungle towns. Battered historic cities. War zones. Territories whose precincts are in one warlords’ hands one week and in another’s the next.
In photographs you can track the wide swath Dave and his teams cut as they bounded around the world. There is a photo of a white helicopter that fluttered him into one outback clinic in Sierra Leone. There he is, tenderly handling the stumps of childrens’ limbs in places as far-flung as Jordan, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua.
There he is in Havana, the Congo, Russia, training a host of prosthetic technicians on how to do what he did. By leaving well-trained prosthetic technicians behind, the salvation of giving someone back their ability to walk and hold things wasn’t dependent on an American Samaritan, soon gone to another conflict zone.
Like many of his friends back in West Virginia, I would check in with him on social media: “You in the country, Dave?” Usually he was not. He was in Iraq. He was in the Tajikistan. He had just spoken with Daniel Ortega, the triumphant revolutionary turned dictator-to-be in Managua, Nicaragua.
Dave earned wide-ranging support for his work, from private foundations to U.S. State Department-aided organizations, such as the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development in Massachusetts. The group partnered with State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement to address the toll of land mines and other explosives around the world.
It was a curious, almost poetic—if insufficient—recompense. The same government which had blown up so many lives in Vietnam, including putting one of its own in harm’s way, was helping that former soldier put people back on their feet again from war’s worldwide violence.
Yet he never glory-hogged his achievements. He pointed instead to groups like the Polus Center, Veterans for America, and fellow vet Bobby Muller. “I’m not the hero here,” he said in one interview. “I owe all this to the people who gave me a platform and an opportunity to do what I do.”
What he did in almost every quadrant of the world was to help soldiers of all sides, building and fitting them with new limbs. He worked with just as many civilians—newly limbless kids, teenagers and adults. I asked him once what the patients he worked with looked like.
“The majority of my patients—90 percent of them—are war-related. Landmine victims or gunshot victims.”
Yet in emergency clinics and rehab centers from the West Bank to Iraq, he and his technicians were not ones to turn anyone away.
“You get a kid that comes in that blew his hand off with a firecracker or got run over by a car and is missing a limb—you don’t turn them away,” he said. “You’ve got all these trained technicians, and you’re going to tell the kid, ‘Sorry, you didn’t step on a land mine, we can’t help you.’ No, you bring them in and fit them and get them up and walking around again.”
At a clinic in Jordan, they called him “Uncle Dave,” an honorific in the Arabic world. Uncle Dave was wrapping up another tour of duty—it seems appropriate to apply that military phrase to his post-military life—at a clinic in Amman in 2016.
“I had this one kid walk in—a bilateral, above-the-knee amputee,” he told me. “A kid with a lot of mental problems, a lot of trauma.”
Dave got him up and walking between parallel bars. He instructed assistants what to do next, since he was headed out of Jordan the next day and then back home to Guatemala.
“I had two of my Syrian technicians there with me. I said, ‘OK, you need to do this, this, and that, because I’m out of here tomorrow. Get his legs up and keep him walking.’”
He needed to finish getting ready for his long journey home across oceans and hemispheres. At that moment, he noticed someone new had entered the room.
“I look to my left. And there’s a new kid standing there. With a leg off below the knee.”
He cursed inwardly. Began crying.
“I broke down.”
“You know, I don’t do that often,” he added. “This kid just put me over the edge.”
Uncle Dave caught his breath, composed himself.
Walked up to the boy.
“When I get back, I’m going to make sure I work on you,” he told him. “I want to work on you when I come back.”
In His Own Words
Here is a final snippet in Dave’s direct voice and lived experience, as he bounced around the planet as “a rehabilitation specialist”—a resonant phrase he sometimes used for himself. What follows comes from a dispatch for La Cuadra, a magazine published out of Guatemala by Michael J. Tallon and another friend, John Rexer. Dave was writing from Basrah, Iraq, in Summer 2013, while witnessing first-hand the tragedy unfolding in the country and reporting back on it. He signed the piece: “Dr. David Evans.”
It is worth printing in its entirety. For all his seriousness, it conveys Dave’s gruff gallows humor — a kind of dark, wry, tough sweetness—that may have enabled him to do what he did for so long. The piece also lays out a key insight about corralling former combatants together into common cause.
The cause? Dave’s lifelong pissed-off politics to build better countries and target politicians and systems responsible for war’s life-shattering consequences—so they can’t just slink offstage to sow grief another day.
La Cuadra, Basrah, Iraq, Summer 2013
By Dr. David Evans
Made a break through the desert inferno and twenty meters later entered the air conditioned kitchen. I took a few minutes to shoot the shit with my newest best friends, the also bunker-sequestered Demir and Darko.
They are a couple Bosnians who work at the compound, training the Iraqi dog-handlers who, with their four-legged K-9 angels, scan the good earth here in southern Iraq for those little weapons of mass destruction: the land mines left behind by our guys.
Darko, a Serb, and Demir, a Muslim, make an interesting argument for getting along with your former enemy. They fought against each other in their war. For a couple years, ironically, they both laid land mines to try to maim and kill each other. They were on opposite sides then, but are in the same bunker, now. It’s good work, if you can get it.
The Bosnians, after hearing my idea of becoming a war correspondent, offered lots of what can only be described as sarcastic encouragement. ‘Yeah, well, write about what you know best, Dave. Tell everyone how you removed that one land mine in Vietnam the hard way.’ All this delivered in heavily-Balkan-accented laughter. I am still not completely convinced they aren’t Chechen terrorists. I am always checking to see if the pressure cooker is still in the kitchen. This time, it was there. I said goodbye to the guys, and asked them to please continue trying not to harm each other.
Gallows humor helps the world go round in shitholes like this.
“Groundhog Day” could have been filmed in Southern Iraq, 2013. Those of us who are here witness the slow, almost imperceptible change in this time of uneasy ‘peace,’ ten years after the beginning of the war. By any measure, this is not my first-time feeling like I just keep stepping into the same old pile of dogshit. It’s just like the feeling I had in the early ’80s, after buying a Chrysler K-car.
I am working with the newly formed Iraqi government’s bureaucrats, officials who are working, in turn, to secure their fiefdoms. One problem is resolved only to have another follow on its heels. It’s just the culture of post-war anywhere, the nature of the beast.
Who do we blame for creating this situation? I would start by laying blame at the feet of George W. Bush, his lying frontman Colin Powell, the United States Congress, the war profiteers and politicians. Evil in general. I also blame civilization, in general. We fill up our gas tanks and somebody dies.
As a war correspondent, I don’t like the term “embedded.” It sounds like a sex act of some sort. For me, it’s just another war zone. My eighth, if memory serves. And like those in those other scarred parts of the world, the war in Iraq hasn’t really ended. The mines are still in the ground. Kids keep getting blown up. Add to that the fact that the Sunni and Shia are locking-and-loading, getting ready for the big dance. It’s ugly now, and it’s gonna get a lot uglier.
And let’s remember the numbers that have brought us to this point. Four thousand-plus dead American soldiers, airmen, and marines, with tens of thousands more disabled for life. Add to that the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed and maimed, and several trillion dollars, lost or wasted. The infrastructure in Iraq and the USA is in dire straits and needs to be rebuilt. As Powell warned, ‘If you break it, you’ve bought it.’ He could have been speaking about Detroit as well as Basrah.
EPILOGUE: Although written with a bit of satiric license, at the end of the day Iraq is not now, not ever been, a joking matter. Since 2008, I have spent a little over 26 months ‘in country’ here in Iraq. The humor just provides some room for sanity in this writer’s mind. If I want to do my job, I’ve got to push out all the horrible things I have seen here and in previous war relief missions.
And all joking aside, however much the politicians who voted for and supported the Iraq War would like to relegate it to the dustbin of history, we must not allow them to forget this tragedy. Ever. Not like we did after Vietnam.
‘Hero of the Open Heart’
Mike Tallon moved to Antigua in 2004. He first met Dave at a joint there called Cafe No Se (Cafe “I Don’t Know”). It is a hangout Tallon describes as “a redoubt of romantics, artists, skells, vagabonds, heroes of the open heart, political activists, and social misfits.”
“I was tending bar and drinking there. Dave was a regular,” said Tallon in an e-mail exchange from Guatemala. “But I actually got to know him around the poker table in the back room. Not just anyone could sit at that poker table. After a few months of getting to know the community, I was invited to the table, and once there I sort of came to know this oddball orphan’s family,”
In 2005, the two did some political action work together, organized while at Cafe No Se. They helped instigate the first protest by American citizens in Antigua against U.S. involvement in the Iraq War, which was laying waste to that country at the time.
In the next few paragraphs, you’ll learn a lot about Dave in a few words and get a sense of the fierce devotion he engendered in friends around the planet. For this is partly how Tallon said goodbye to his buddy on Facebook on the Fourth of July 2020, after he learned Dave had died in the day before, from what looked to be an accumulated avalanche of ailments:
“Dave shipped out for his next action last night. If I know him, he chose July 3 to prove his own independence from the nation that he both questioned and loved … My sense is that his afterlife is far more like being on ready-reserve, to go do battle with evil on some innocent’s behalf, than it is clouds and harps. He would fucking hate that shit. For Dave, this works better: “Sleep Light and Haunt the Bastards.”
To be sure, mortality does underscore the real meaning and importance of things. Ask Talon himself. Both Dave and he had some hard-drinking years together under their belts in Antigua. Both backed off as health woes mounted.
“After the first five or six years, Cafe No Se became less of a hub for him. I think, in part, it was health-related. We really did drink a lot back then. At some point, we either age out of that life, or we cash out.”
Seven years ago, Tallon himself almost died from a genetic disorder.
“It put me into heart failure, pancreatic failure, and gave me Stage IV cirrhosis. And for sure, the drinking didn’t help.” He was not expected to live. “But I did. After a year of fighting for my life in New York — hospitals and family were required—I made it back down to Antigua.”
Time for a celebration.
“At my 50th birthday party, the whole town is there, including Dave. After a few hours, he buttonholes me and we sit down to talk. He tells me that now I understand what the guys in Vietnam always said: ‘It ain’t nothing but a thing.’”
After nearly buying the farm, Tallon thought he understood what his friend meant. Dave and other veterans learned this hard truth in the jungles of Vietnam, he said. “They learned that at some point, this world WILL kill you. You do not have any choice in that. AT ALL.”
This was an e-mail exchange, but if Tallon had been telling me this in person, I imagine he might pause to eyeball his listener for the clincher.
“His meaning was this: At some point in life, all the bullshit gets stripped away. You learn what literature knows as ‘Snowden’s Secret’ from ‘Catch 22.’ That when the spirit is gone, man is matter. Drop him from a high place, he falls. Throw him into a pit, and he rots like the other garbage. Set him on fire, and he burns. Once you accept that—really fucking accept that—then everything that doesn’t kill you … well …
“That ain’t nothing but a thing.”
“You move on. You go to the bar. You don’t get too upset by the asshole on your right or your left. If you can, you use what you’ve got and you win the bar bet, so that you can have a laugh, make a new friend. And then do the important stuff. Like continuing to wage war on the sons-of-bitches who treat folks like us as if we don’t have souls.”
Somewhere in all that, he said, “there is the truth of the guy I knew.”
Dave Evans was a warrior, said his friend.
“He knew the the world was going to take his life at some point. But until then, he’d rage with an open heart and powerful sword.”
Dave Evans’ ashes were scattered on Kayford Mountain in the heart of West Virginia in late July 2021 by Dave’s two remaining brothers, his children and Kee Adams Evans. This story is dedicated to Dave’s three children.
NOTE: In conjunction with the West Virginia premiere of “The Wake Up Call,” this story was adapted from a longer piece published in the aftermath of Dave Evans’s death in July 2020. To read that piece, click here.
Poster for 2022 FestivALL Charleston showing of “The Wake Up Call”