MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Bill Carlson lives Veteran’s Day every time he puts on his Honor Guard uniform. He’s proud of his service in Vietnam, where he ran flight deck operations aboard the aircraft carrier Coral Sea.

Now that he’s retired, he finds time to honor other veterans by serving in the Elk River Honor Guard at military funerals.

But for Carlson there’s one veteran who will always bear special meaning. “The one veteran who stands out in my life is my donor,” he said.

In 1995 Carlson was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. By September of 2008, it was necessary to implant a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) to take the place of his diseased heart. Less than a year later on June 8, 2009, he would undergo a life-saving heart transplant.

As with all organ recipients, Carlson knows very little about his donor other than he was a 25-year-old Iraqi war veteran who left behind a 2-month-old child.

“I’m hoping someday to meet my donor’s family and his young son to let him know what a hero his dad really was,” Carlson said.

Last January, Carlson received a letter from the young man’s mother explaining how her son served in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard. She wrote of his love of the outdoors, especially fishing, and of the tremendous hurt his passing left on the family. Still, they remain only on a first name basis due to the strict confidentiality that guides all donor and recipient patients.

That January letter from the donor’s mother brings tears to Carlson’s eyes.

Carlson read out loud one line that he finds particularly poignant: “My son had a good heart in every sense, and I hope it serves you well and long.”

Feeling an overwhelming need to reach out to the donor’s family, Carlson wanted to give them something to help ease their intense pain and sense of loss. He assembled a special American flag, adorned with three ribbons. Each ribbon contains the words, “from a grateful veteran, a grateful wife and grateful daughters.”

To show his intense gratitude Carlson sent the flag to the veteran’s mother with hopes she’ll place it on her son’s grave.

He said that few veterans return from war as true heroes, but he thinks that’s exactly what his donor is to him.

“Not only was he an Iraqi vet… but he gave the gift of life to someone like me,” Carlson said. “I’m alive today because of my donor’s sacrifice.”


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