IVH resident writes memoir recalling several near death experiences

T-R PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY Purple Heart recipient and Iowa Veterans Home resident Dennis Julian, center, has written a memoir detailing his near death experiences both in Vietnam and stateside. Also pictured are Iowa River Hospice Nurse McKenna Huseboe, left, and IRH volunteer Ron Busch, right.

Dennis Julian’s life — and all of the events that nearly ended it — are nothing short of remarkable.

The Iowa Veterans Home resident, who served in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War — where he almost died on two separate occasions — is nonverbal and primarily communicates through an alphabet board where he points to letters or common responses like ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ A few of his most commonly shared phrases, to this day, are either “Why am I still here?” or “Why didn’t I die?”

Still, as anyone who meets him can attest, he’s remarkably full of energy, and his discovery of Jesus Christ has instilled an unwavering optimism in him that can’t be shaken. McKenna Huseboe, an RN with Iowa River Hospice, and Ron Busch, an IRH volunteer who himself was a military policeman during the Vietnam era and had a near death experience of his own in a farming accident, have only known Julian for about a month, but Busch said it’s rare that their conversations don’t run over an hour every time they get together.

Although he can’t speak, Julian’s eyes light up when he gets excited, and he loves to fist bump the people he meets.

“Dennis has been one of the most intriguing people I’ve talked to,” Busch said. “And to get him excited and (hear) his crazy laugh is something else… He has a very positive outlook on life, which I’m amazed at.”

Julian, a Michigan native who’s lived in six total states over his 73 years on Earth, has faced more than his fair share of trials and tribulations, and he felt that others could benefit from reading about them. So over three decades ago, he set out to recount his experiences in a compact memoir that clocks in at just shy of 100 pages, and Gary Mull, who assisted him in the writing process, came into the picture around 2006.

As he lays out in the story, Julian’s first near-death experience came almost immediately after he was born. The muscle at the opening of his stomach was not functioning properly to allow food in, and doctors gave him two months to live. Even after he started taking down food, he had to be fed every hour on the hour for 18 months until he finally began to process it normally.

After living through what he called “a pretty typical middle class American childhood” — although losing a cousin to suicide in 1964 had a profound impact on him — Julian said he had an experience where Jesus told him to read specific Bible verses shortly before he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1967.

When he signed up, Julian wrote that he was generally unaware of the politics surrounding the Vietnam War and simply signed up because he believed that if America was fighting there, it must have been for a good reason. On Feb. 14, 1968, shortly after the VietCong had launched what is now known as the Tet Offensive, he was hit by enemy fire northwest of Da Nang at around 11 a.m., and there was no helicopter coming until the next morning. The soldiers who found him later that day assumed he was dead, and 29 of the Marines he was with had been killed that day — including 10 of his best friends.

Ten more of his friends went to a military hospital and died, but by some strange twist of fate, Julian made it all the way to Japan for surgery and recovery. The Marines had told his mother he was dead, but she refused to believe it. Finally, he called and proved her right.

For the incident, Julian received a Purple Heart, and before long, he was back in Vietnam once again. His third near-death experience occurred on Dec. 10, when his unit came under sniper fire, and he ended up shooting both of them. He counted 147 American soldiers who died in the skirmish, and after he got back to the base, he found two bullet holes in his shirt. Somehow, they had gone out the back of the shirt without piercing his body.

“Can you tell me that was not God? I told the guy that was with me to keep my shirt for me. I wanted to take it home,” he wrote.

By early 1969, he knew he had had enough of war and headed back to the States, where he kicked around bases for a few months before receiving his discharge on Aug. 1. He settled into civilian life, got married on the West Coast, moved to Texas and started a family.

Unfortunately, the seemingly happy and normal existence he had carved out for himself after the hell of Vietnam came crashing down on Memorial Day 1983, when he and his wife Patty were returning from her mother’s house. A drunk 17-year-old boy in a stolen pickup truck ran a stoplight and collided with the vehicle Patty was driving at 70 miles per hour. He spent nearly six months in a coma.

By November, he could finally breathe on his own again, and in December, he awoke. The accident and its aftermath solidified his faith even further, and it granted him “an enduring assurance of God’s power.”

Still, he hasn’t been the same since. He lost a dramatic amount of weight and struggled to move or remember much of anything. In the mid 1980s, memories of Vietnam started to come back to him, and he lost his father to lung and brain cancer. Patty divorced him and remarried. It was a self-described “low point” in Julian’s life.

Once again, he persevered and leaned on his spirituality, even miraculously surviving a series of more “odd accidents” before what he considers his fifth and final near-death experience in 2001 when his gallbladder exploded.

Julian now calls IVH home because one of his daughters resides in Iowa City, and while he isn’t sure how much time he has left on Earth, he’d like to share his story with the world and potentially get it published. He also hopes it will help to paint a more complete picture for his children, who he didn’t see for years after moving back to Michigan in 1986.

And if there’s one overarching message other than the power of God he hopes readers will glean from his story, it’s a simple but powerful one — “No more war.”

Anyone who is interested in reading Julian’s story can contact Iowa River Hospice at (641) 753-7704.


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