by CRAIG COLEY
Disabled by a leg injury he received in Vietnam, John Thiel retired from the U.S. Army and enrolled at Indiana University in 1971, almost 20 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act. The university wasn’t prepared for Thiel and other soldiers who showed up with both education benefits and lingering injuries. While at IU, Thiel co-founded the first Disabled American Veterans chapter on a college campus and successfully petitioned for accommodations that are now commonplace, including the university’s first handicapped-accessible parking spaces.
Thiel, 72, went on to earn three degrees from the IU School of Business, and today funds a number of scholarships at IU and several high schools. “Education’s an important thing, and if I can give a leg up to a kid, what else do I have to do with my money?” Thiel says. “My rich Uncle Sam paid for my college. Of course, I had to get myself shot to hell in order to qualify.”
Thiel, who grew up in Davenport, Iowa, flunked out in his first college attempt and decided to enlist before he could be drafted. When he expressed his interest in chemical engineering, the recruiter suggested he train to be a chemical staff specialist. “It turns out chemical staff specialist has nothing to do with test tubes and beakers and Bunsen burners,” Thiel says. “It’s a matter of planning and recording the effects of chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare activities.”
But much of what the Army Chemical Corps did in Vietnam—exploring and then contaminating enemy bunkers, spraying defoliant and insecticide, dropping drums of napalm and nerve gas—was not covered in training. “We just winged it, and it became a very significant part of the war effort,” Thiel says. “We saved a lot of lives on the ground.” Thiel had two tours of duty, each shortened by injury. The disabling one came when a mortar round landed by his legs.
After graduating with his doctorate in business administration, Thiel worked as a consultant and taught business at IU and other universities. Twice married and twice widowed, his years as a “show-choir dad” have made him a supporter of Cardinal Stage and the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.
In 2010, Thiel developed a new avocation. After extensive interviews, he has written accounts of each of the 39 Army Chemical Corps members who died in Vietnam, as well as a number of other Vietnam War casualties. Thiel says major histories often overlook smaller units like the Chemical Corps. “If the unit’s forgotten, then I’m forgotten,” Thiel says. “I don’t want to fade off into oblivion.”