Theodore W. Bridis Sr., of Miami, Fla., died Oct. 3, 2013, in Miami from cancer. He was 67. At the time of his death, he was among employees at the Homeland Security Department temporarily furloughed over the budget impasse with Republicans in Congress. After his helicopter evacuation and three battlefield amputations on Feb. 22, 1970, Bridis was awarded the Bronze Star, earned a master’s degree in engineering at the University of Miami, had a second child, was certified as a rescue scuba diver, competed for the United States as a one-armed distance wheelchair racer in Paralympic games in Greece in 2004 and Australia in 2000, and worked 33 years as a Coast Guard civil engineering supervisor. He counseled scores of disabled veterans and paraplegics with an impressive absence of regret over his life’s circumstances. Bridis earned All-City honors as a linebacker, No. 88, on the Miami High football team, which won the Florida state and U.S. national championships in 1962-63, where he met Sallie, who was a cheerleader. The Herald described him as a superstar. In a 1991 documentary about the Stingarees football team and its rivalry with Miami Edison, Bridis is seen suffering a dislocated shoulder during a practice and grimacing as a coach, Ralph Davis, reset it on the field. Bridis was inducted in 1999 in the Miami High Football Hall of Fame. Bridis attended the Citadel, a military college in Charleston, S.C., on a football scholarship but never played there due to a shoulder injury. He married Sallie in 1966, graduated the Citadel in 1967, briefly attended graduate school at the University of West Virginia, had a son in 1968 and before graduating entered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a second lieutenant in 1968. After brief duty stations in Virginia and California, Bridis was sent to Vietnam in November 1969. Early the morning of Feb. 22, 1970, Bridis was leading an Americal Division combat engineering unit clearing a Vietnam mountain top for 155mm Howitzer artillery and crossed a ridge carrying empty canteens to fill for his soldiers. He theorized years later that the rising sun had silhouetted him for North Vietnamese mortars hidden nearby. The first shell exploded mere feet behind him, its shrapnel shredding his legs and dangling right arm but mostly missing vital organs in his chest and head. His fellow troops charged into the continued barrage to drag him to safety, then U.S. helicopter pilots landed amid the explosions to evacuate him to Da Nang Air Base. A generation later, in conversations with his children, he emphasized the heroism of the soldiers and pilots who saved him. He carried shrapnel in his back from the explosion the rest of his life. The Army telegram delivered to Sallie Bridis the following afternoon in Miami said that her young husband had received traumatic disarticulation of both of his legs at the knee and traumatic amputation of his right arm below the elbow. He has been placed on the very seriously ill list and his condition is of such severity that there is cause for concern. A Knight-Ridder newspaper correspondent, James McCartney, described in a war dispatch finding the young lieutenant in a hospital in Saigon: He was swathed in bandages, barely able to speak. He was slowly lifting his left arm, clenching his fist, sweat dripping from his face, exercising. He knew that one day, if he lived, his left arm would be all important. McCartney wrote that the doctor privately gave Bridis a less than 1-in-10 chance to survive. He just might make it, the doctor told McCartney. He’s got the motivation. He wants to live. Bridis returned to the U.S., first to Walter Reed hospital in Washington then to his native Miami. When his wife and 2-year-old son, Ted Jr., encountered him in a hospital corridor standing on prosthetic legs with a hook in place for his right arm, he said, Is this OK with you? It was, and it was among the last conversations between them about his grievous injuries. President Richard Nixon wrote to Bridis in April 1970 and said he was heartened by news of your tremendous spirit as you move toward recovery. Bridis was awarded the Purple Heart in addition to the Bronze Star and a battlefield promotion to first lieutenant. Bridis had a daughter, Tracy, and moved with his family in 1972 into a new, accessible home near Kendall _ which the Herald covered extensively and where he lived until his death. He completed his master’s degree in engineering at the University of Miami in 1973 and worked as an engineer for a private firm then the county government. He joined the Coast Guard as an engineer in 1980, eventually becoming a supervisor and managing major projects from Texas to the Carolinas. He was an avid canoeist and with his son crossed the Everglades and paddled throughout the Florida Keys on overnight trips. He volunteered as a cub scout den and troop leader and was ordained as a deacon in the Presbyterian Church USA. Bridis took up scuba diving and earned his rescue diver certification in 1986, using fins attached to prosthetic stumps. He made dives at night, in the open ocean, at extreme depths and inside caves. He joked that the injury that bothered him most during dives _ where weightlessness made him as nimble as anyone _ was the shoulder he dislocated playing football, since it grew increasingly painful under the pressure of his deepest dives. Bridis was featured in a 1985 documentary diving in Bonaire in the Caribbean with Jean-Michel Cousteau, and the 1984 Italian horror movie, The Red Ocean, when he played a shark attack victim pulled from the water by a Coast Guard helicopter. Looking for new challenges, Bridis took up distance wheelchair racing starting in 1991. Using a specialized wheelchair with a low-slung, three-wheel design, he propelled himself with his one arm in local community races _ including a 50-mile race at the Miami Zoo _ and gradually improved to international events, including races in England, China, Mexico, Cuba and Switzerland. He represented the U.S. team at the Paralympic games in Greece in 2004 and Australia in 2000. He made the final heat in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter races in 2000. A favorite photo showed him clutching a tiny American flag in his hook at the Australia games. Bridis was a torchbearer on July 4, 1996, for the summer Olympic games in Atlanta. Bridis is survived by his wife, Sallie; children, Ted Jr. of Washington, D.C., and Tracy Schiller of Fort Lauderdale; mother, Margaret Patricia Bridis of Miami; step-brother Michael Bridis of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; and four grandchildren, Trey and Alyx Bridis, and Jake and Jared Schiller. Visitation will be 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, at Stanfill Funeral Home in Miami with a memorial service immediately afterward. Bridis will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington in 2014.
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