Interviews

The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Victim of the Vietnam War

Kerry Gruson, an athlete, activist, and former journalist, works to build bridges between people of different abilities to create a brighter future.
Kerry Gruson, an athlete, activist, and former journalist, works to build bridges between people of different abilities to create a brighter future. Photo courtesy of Kerry Gruson
In the waning days of the Vietnam War in March of 1974, a young Kerry Gruson was headed to Southeast Asia to see the end of a conflict she'd fought passionately against. A 24-year-old reporter credentialed by the Boston Globe, she stopped off in Hawaii to interview a veteran about his experience.

In the grip of a traumatic flashback, the vet strangled Gruson and left her for dead, leaving her permanently paralyzed as a result of Post-Traumatic Parkinson's Syndrome.

Now 47 years removed from what she refers to as her "accident," Gruson says she doesn't hate the veteran who attacked her or harbor any anger toward him. The way she sees it, they're both victims of war, and even though Gruson never enlisted or faced battle, her story is a fitting reminder as we honor Veterans Day this week.

"Some people would say that he destroyed my life. I think what he did was he changed my life," Gruson says through the microphone speaker she uses to amplify her voice, now a permanent whisper. "My life has become greater for having to overcome the challenges that arose from our encounter, so in a way I'm grateful to him."

Gruson's Venetian Causeway apartment is adorned with mementos from her many accolades. On a bookshelf, there's a photo with former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. On a wall lined with paintings of horses (she was once an avid rider) is a framed newspaper cutout from her time as a journalist doing hands-on reporting at a stable in Boston. Displayed prominently near her door is a plaque from Guinness World Records for "the most triathlon races hauling another person completed in one month (female)," beside a photo of her and her race partner, marathon runner Caryn Lubetsky.
click to enlarge Kerry Gruson with her running partner Caryn Lubetsky at the Florida Xtreme Triathlon. - COURTESY OF KERRY GRUSON
Kerry Gruson with her running partner Caryn Lubetsky at the Florida Xtreme Triathlon.
Courtesy of Kerry Gruson
Together, Gruson and Lubetsky competed in four triathlons during one week in 2018 to achieve the record. Now the pair plans on setting a new world record on December 20 at Florida International University's north campus, where they will run for 12 hours straight without rest.

Gruson and Lubetsky co-chair a nonprofit called Thumbs Up International, which pairs non-disabled people with persons with disabilities to participate in road races and athletic events. The organization's name derives from Gruson's trademark gesture.

"Thumbs-up is my signature because it's positive, and also because people have a hard time hearing me, so it's much easier to answer 'how are you?' with a thumbs-up," Gruson says, throwing up two thumbs.

Gruson, who styles herself as a terminal optimist and determined activist, is prone to muse philosophically about the importance of base emotions and how she has learned to differentiate between fear and outrage in her life.

"Anger is a very energy-consuming emotion, and that left me powerless to do anything else. My anger dissipated very quickly because I needed energy just to lift my arms, to breathe, and to go on with my life," she explains.

Outrage, on the other hand, is a righteous response to injustice, which calls for courage in the face of fear — a trait Gruson opines is key to being a soldier.

"Courage is facing fear with action. That is what soldiers are meant to do. That's what being a soldier is all about," she says.

"My anger dissipated very quickly because I needed energy just to lift my arms, to breathe, and to go on with my life."

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This year, Gruson has begun searching for the veteran who attacked her and hopes to meet him if he's still alive. She hired a private investigator who couldn't turn up much but plans to look through archives of her own mother's investigation into the incident.

She wants to learn from her attacker and teach him about her experience as well.

In Gruson's many years as an activist building bridges between people of all abilities, she has gained wisdom and insight that she aspires to share with veterans and others whose scars aren't physical or immediately apparent. After all, it's the invisible scars from war — being trained to see people as enemies, Gruson says — that create victims like her and the veteran who harmed her.

"I would [tell veterans that] we understand your pain and your feeling of being lost, of being forgotten. What I suggest you do is to become involved in some positive way with your community," she says. "Being able to do things for other people helps me feel immensely powerful, because I know I am not alone."
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos