Michael D. Echanis -Trans Generational Wounded Warrior by Gregory Walker
Michael Dick Echanis was born on November 16, 1950, in Nampa, Idaho. Mike, with two younger brothers and a sister, was the oldest of the four Echanis children. He grew up in eastern Oregon in the small rural town of Ontario whereas a young man he became an avid outdoorsman. Attending Ontario High School Mike was a solid academic student who participated in track and field as well as basketball, a sport he was particularly fond of and demonstrated exceptional skill as an “Ontario Tiger”.
Becoming a Soldier
Military service runs strong in the Echanis Family and while Mike was in high school his cousin, Major Joseph Ygnacio Echanis, was shot down over Laos and designated as Missing in Action (http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=24338117).
According to his family young Mike, who early on showed a great interest in serving his country in the military, felt that if he could get to Vietnam under the right circumstances he might be able to learn what had happened to his cousin. Echanis skipped his high school graduation ceremony so he could join the Army on May 12, 1969.
Mike attended Basic Training at Fort Ord, California, and then Advance Infantry Training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Upon his successful graduation from AIT he went on to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he attended Airborne training in October 1969. Receiving the “Silver Wings” of a paratrooper
Echanis completed Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg, NC. When informed he would not be sent to Vietnam but to Okinawa as the war in Vietnam was winding down for Special Forces, he withdrew from the course and immediately volunteered for Vietnam. Upon his arrival he again volunteered, this time to become a recon man with Company C, 75th Infantry (Ranger).
Rangers Lead the Way
Arriving in Vietnam on March 23, 1970, Specialist 4th Class Michael Echanis volunteered for duty with the 75th Ranger Infantry as a scout-observer. He was accepted and assigned to Charlie Company (Ranger), 75th Infantry. Known as “Charlie Rangers” the company operated under control of I Field Force (Vietnam) and was based at Ahn Khe. The company was moved to Pleiku on March 29, 1970, where it came under operational control of the aerial 7th Squadron of the 7th Cavalry. The Rangers conducted thirty-two patrols in the far western border areas of the Central Highlands in only a few very short weeks.
On April 19th the company was attached to the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry and relocated to Ahn Khe, where it was targeted against the 95th NVA Regiment in the Mang Yang Pass area of Binh Dinh Province
On May 4, 1970, the company was placed under the operational control of the 4th Infantry Division. On May 5th, Operation BINH TAY I was launched with the invasion of Cambodia’s Ratanaktri Province. Ranger combat actions during the operation were fierce and sometimes adverse to include the Rangers themselves being ambushed. Company C concluded Operation Binh Tay I with thirty patrol observations of enemy personnel, five NVA killed, and fifteen weapons captured. On May 24, 1970, Company C was pulled out of Cambodia and released from 4th Infantry Division control.
Becoming a Wounded Warrior
It was May 6, 1970, and SP4 Echanis had been in Vietnam for a month. He had just completed the required recon course with Charlie Rangers and was traveling with three other Rangers in a military truck through Ahn Khe Pass. The vehicle was ambushed by an estimated company size element of North Vietnamese regulars. Within minutes both the driver and assistant driver of the truck were wounded as well as the Rangers themselves.
Echanis, having opened fire on the enemy with his rifle as the vehicle came under attack, jumped from the truck as it left the road and skidded into a ditch turning onto its left side. Struck in his left foot by AK47 fire Mike continued to engage the NVA. Bullet fragmentation then struck him between the eyes after careening off the bridge of his sunglasses. With blood now pouring down into his eyes the young Ranger continued to fire on the advancing enemy troops. Another AK round hit him in his right foot, traveling up into and lodging in his calf. Still firing Echanis was struck a fourth time by enemy fire across one forearm. His mother, Pat Echanis, would later recall her son describing the scene as U.S. helicopters arrived to relieve the embattled Rangers. “Mike told me even as the helicopter was arriving the enemy was so close to him he could have reached out and touched them.”
One of those Rangers Mike is credited with saving was then Staff Sergeant Eddie Roberts, an African-American professional soldier who would later be inducted into the Ranger Hall of Fame. In a strange twist of fate Eddie Roberts and I would meet in 1979, at Fort Benning, Georgia, when he became my 1st Sergeant at Company B (Ranger), 1/29th Infantry, on Kelly Hill. Roberts touched the lives of hundreds of soldiers during his career and in the most positive of ways. He passed away and per his wishes is buried at Fort Benning.
For his heroic actions during the ambush Mike Echanis was awarded the Bronze Star with “V” device on July 15, 1970. His citation reads in part “Despite his numerous wounds, Specialist Echanis continued to fight until the beleaguered truck was relieved. Specialist Echanis’ aggressive spirit and undaunted courage were decisive in preventing the annihilation of the truck and its personnel.”
Combat induced PTS, depression, and recovery:
Upon aerial medevac Specialist Echanis was sent to the Army 17th Field Hospital and then to the 249th General Hospital in Japan. There his surgeon, reflecting on how young the soldier was, elected not to amputate Mike’s seriously injured right lower leg. Years later Pat Echanis recalls the correspondence with the doctor who offered he wanted to give her son a fighting chance so “he patched him up as best he could and sent him to Letterman Army Hospital”. At Letterman in San Francisco, California, Specialist Echanis would undergo 7 months of grueling surgeries and a complicated casting process that left him exhausted. He went from 150 to 123 pounds during this period.
The weight loss and being bedridden left him emaciated and depressed. The bullet wound to his head resulted in a diagnosis of cephalalgia, or chronic headaches affecting the frontal and temporal areas of his brain. Although his wound to his left foot healed the right foot and calf were badly and permanently damaged. Echanis suffered foot drop with contracture of the third, fourth and fifth toes due to nerve and artery interruption. In addition, he now had vasomotor instability of his right lower leg. He was medically considered crippled.
His cousin, Michael L. Echanis, remembers “Little Mike” describing to him his lack of overall feeling in his right lower leg after his return from Vietnam. “His nerve endings were badly injured by his wounds,” offers “Big Mike” Echanis. “His entire lower right leg was constantly numb, and he lived in chronic pain.”
On December 18, 1970, Mike Echanis was medically retired from military service. The VA in Boise, Idaho, would rate him as being 100% disabled and provide him with a small pension. He returned home with a soft brace for his crippled right lower leg, an orthopedic insert in his right shoe, a cane and an uncertain future as a wounded warrior in the early 1970s. “Mike was never a quitter,” remembers his mother. “He was stubborn even as a little boy. He always told you exactly what he thought. He questioned everything. He was tough.”
For two months the young veteran lived in a basement room in the family home which he seldom left. His friends and family would visit him there and his father, Frank, had a pool table put in the room so Mike could entertain himself and his friends. “He was a great pool player,” offered Frank. “He learned how to play pool here in Ontario before the Army and he could make all the trick shots.” When exactly Mike decided he would learn to walk again is unclear but when he did he asked his mother to get him a pair of soft desert boots, the only footwear he could wear comfortably, and he began teaching himself, step by step. “He used the pool table in his room to support himself,” the family recalls. “He’d brace himself on it and walk around and around it.”
The soft brace meant to reduce the ill-effects of his foot drop condition was tossed aside. Echanis strengthened his upper thigh and hip muscles and in doing so developed a technique where he would flex and tighten his upper right leg as he took a step, literally but discreetly four throwing his lower leg and foot forward. In his soft shoes and with great will power he not only appeared to be walking normally but in time he was able to run again without support. Randy Wanner, who became Mike’s Hwa Rang Do instructor and a close confidant, described Echanis as having “acquired a bouncing, rolling step” with which he moved swiftly. Even so, without wearing his soft shoes Mike experienced extreme difficulty movement and balance wise to include not being unable to hold himself up when bathing.
Two hometown physicians and friends of the family, Dr. Baker and Dr. Sanders, encouraged Mike to take up weightlifting to increase his potential for recovery. The recommended rehabilitation program included a diet heavy with nutritional supplements and a high intake of protein, most often through homemade milkshakes. Mike enhanced his physical training program by incorporating the anabolic steroid Dianabol. It was popular in the 1970s among European and American body builders. He went from 123 pounds post hospital care to a healthy two hundred pounds, diligently exercising every day and pushing himself from one physical and mental goal to the next without compromise.
Interested in the martial arts as a young boy he took Judo up again and then Karate in Boise, Idaho. He later trained as a boxer with Al Barras, a Boise based trainer, and would go on to fight as a heavy weight locally. By the time Echanis was awarded his 1st DAN black belt in the Korean martial art Hwa Rang Do his “high altitude” kicking abilities were extraordinary. “Mike was very proud of his spinning kicks,” remembers retired SEAL Skip Crane, a good friend of the martial artist. “He loved demonstrating how powerful and how high he could effectively kick you.”
In 1975, Mike moved to southern California where he attained his 1st DAN black belt in Hwa Rang Do. Still, the love of military life and his desire to serve his country in a meaningful manner continued to pull deeply at him. If he could not soldier any longer he could use his remarkable self discoveries about the strength of the human mind and will to overcome fear, pain and physical disability to train soldiers, specifically Special Operations soldiers like the Rangers, Green Berets and Navy SEALs?
In 1976, in a letter to his family from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, after being appointed as the Senior Hand to Hand and Special Weapons Instructor to the United States Army’s John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, Mike wrote “I am completing a 6-week [military hand to hand training] film and completing an Army Manual [on the same subject]. I am standardizing the Army’s Hand to Hand system. It’s a lot of work, 5:00 in the morning til 2300 every nite…I feel I have found my profession and I know the military is my home.”
The initial results of his work at Fort Bragg would be presented in the January-February 1976 issue of VERITAS, the official publication of the elite Foreign Area Officer (FAO) program in an article simply entitled “Hwa Rang Do”.
In February 1977, in a formal letter from the 5th Special Forces Group (ABN) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, then Major Juan A. Montez said the following of Echanis’ training programs – 5 “Mr. Echanis’ totally comprehensive approach to the development of soldiers, physically, mentally, and his focus upon the fighting spirit of men, gives us an approach to hand to hand combat well exceeding the usual physical programs developed today.
“His programs dwell on the precise needs of the individual soldier, with his primary focus upon the Physical-Psychological development of the man concerned. Instilling confidence through training, these men acquire the proper state of mind for battle and the physical ability to react decisively to a vast and varied amount of hand-to-hand combat situations. The reaction to these programs of instruction by the individual soldier have been excellent.”
Montez would also point out the U.S. military had not developed a new [hand to hand combatives program] since the O’Neal System was enacted in 1945. “Mr. Echanis’ training programs exceed any close-quarters combatives manuals, books or training programs that I have viewed up to this time,” he wrote. Transition Mike Echanis’ successful transformation from medically retired / crippled Vietnam veteran in late 1970 to being named as the senior hand to hand and special weapons instructor for the Army’s elite Green Berets and Navy SEALs by December 1975 was nothing less than phenomenal. Relying upon his family and their cultural heritage, close friends and experienced physicians and through self-education about the power of the human mind and the durability of the human spirit he proved modern medicine’s assessment of his disabilities defining and then confining him to a limited existence and lifestyle as a wounded warrior to be wrong. Echanis would successfully demonstrate his talents and skills to the Special Forces’ senior leadership at Fort Bragg.
In 1976, now as their Senior Instructor and H2H Advisor he would teach six three-week long instructor courses for the SF community, along the way meeting and befriending now legendary Colonel Charlie Beckwith who would later form and lead America’s first counter-terrorism unit, Detachment DELTA, who asked him to train the first generation of DELTA commandos.
In 1977, at the invitation of then Commander Richard Marcinko, who later became the founder and leader of SEAL Team 6, Mike traveled to Little Creek, Virginia. There he taught three two week instructor courses to operators from SEAL Team 2 and UDT-21. Echanis began writing a 9-volume series on specialized military hand to hand combatives of which three were published and remain intensely popular to this day.
In 2010, the Echanis Family authorized “The Complete Michael D. Echanis Collection – The Special Forces Hand to Hand Combat Special Tactics Series” from Black Belt Books and available on Amazon.com in lieu of the continued popular interest in Mike’s work. “He wouldn’t accept being crippled for life,” offers Pat Echanis. “Mike knew he was a warrior. He knew being a warrior was his path. He never quit on himself. He never gave up. He never felt sorry for himself or for what had happened to him in Vietnam.”
Finding love in Nicaragua
Mike met Dora Maria on a beach in Nicaragua. “He was my first love,” she shared with me many years later in Los Angeles.
As the war in Nicaragua became more violent Mike became concerned for her safety. He arranged for her to go to Los Angeles with her sister, promising he would join her within weeks. The two became engaged. Echanis, who had met martial artist and emerging movie star Chuck Norris while training the SEALs in Little Creek, Virginia, planned to reunite with Norris, get his actor’s card, and begin working for Norris in the martial arts film industry. He wanted the stability of marriage, a family of his own, and he was tired of war. “Mike wanted a son of his own,” Pat Echanis, his mother, told me during the many interviews we enjoyed at her home in Ontario, Oregon. “He wanted to be a father.”
Although she chose not to attend his funeral Dora Maria and her sister arranged to visit with the Echanis family in Oregon afterwards. “Mom loved her,” recalls Liz Echanis, Mike’s sister. “She and her sister stayed with us for about a week. It was good for both mom and our dad, Frank.”
By happenstance I would locate Dora Maria and visit with her. She graciously shared several letters she’d kept, a copy of Mike’s second book he’d signed to her, and insights into Mike’s last few months battling the Sandinistas on behalf of not only President Somoza, but interested Parties in the United States to include the Central Intelligence Agency.
Dora Maria, was still in Managua when the plane carrying Mike, former “Green Beret” Chuck Sanders, and Bobby Ngoyen Van Ngoyen exploded over Lake Nicaragua. She learned of his death from her brother-in-law at the time, who had conducted the autopsies of those killed at the military hospital in Managua.
She left for Los Angeles soon after.
Having met her it is easy to see how and why Mike Echanis fell in love with this graceful and charming woman.
And it is easy to see she still keeps a special place in her heart for him.
On September 8, 1978, Mike Echanis was killed as the result of an improvised explosive device placed onboard the private aircraft he was a passenger in. The true and accurate account of his death will be presented in his upcoming biography. On January 11, 1979, Frank and Pat Echanis, his parents, received a formal signed certificate from then President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. It reads: “The United States of America honors the memory of Michael D. Echanis – This certificate is awarded in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States.”
An author corrects the false narrative
“Local man a real American hero”
To the editor:
I write this letter in an effort to correct the record about a local hero, Michael D. Echanis, who was born in Nampa and raised in Ontario. Mike Echanis served with honor in Vietnam, then recovered from wounds received there to become a celebrated member of the martial arts community. His achievements led to his induction into the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame and prestigious Special Forces Association. He was killed while fighting rebel forces in Nicaragua in 1978, and was buried in Ontario.
In 2013, I co-authored the book American Warrior, the “True Story of a Legendary Ranger” with Gary O’Neal. I did considerable research in that effort, contacting among others the Special Forces Association and the Rangers Hall of Fame. I also conducted numerous interviews. I relied heavily on these primary sources and believed them to be credible. Unfortunately much of what these sources related to me about Michael Echanis appears to be inaccurate.
In the ensuing period more information has surfaced through the FOIA process, Wikileaks, and the Echanis family themselves. This includes U.S. State Department cables concerning the confused situation in Nicaragua, military service records and official military correspondence. This newly available material paints a picture of Mike Echanis as a real American hero, a man who served his country with courage and honor.
I wish I’d had access to this material while working on this book. It has been a real pleasure getting to know the Echanis family and I am quite pleased that together we have been able to clarify Mike Echanis’ service to this country and his extraordinary heroism.
David Fisher, Bronx, New York
Letter to the editor – https://www.argusobserver.com/opinion/letter-to-the-editor/article_c4d63bb8-901f-11e7-9413-bfceeec6d647.html
Graduation from Ontario High School – May 1969 Graduation from Airborne Training – October 1969 Bronze Star with “V” Device for Heroism – July 1970 Purple Heart – May 1970 Award of 1st Degree Black Belt, HwaRang Do (BB # 75-0652) – April 1975 Appointment to Special Forces as Senior Instructor H2H – December 1975 Awards and Decorations Bronze Star with “V” Device Purple Heart Good Conduct Medal National Defense Service Medal Vietnam Service Medal with 2 Bronze Service Stars Combat Infantryman Badge Military Parachutist Badge Expert Badge with Marksmanship Bar (Rifle) The Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal with Device (1960) The Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Device The Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Medal
Quote from Mike:
“I know that the military is my home.” “I’m a warrior, I’m a soldier. I’m not a pacifist, I’m not a civilian. I am a soldier, a professional warrior. I’m a warrior in my mind and my body and this is the stand I take.”
In August 1979, Mrs. Pat Echanis advised Colonel Norman M. Rich, MD, at the Walter Reed Medical Center, of their son’s passing. She had shared her son’s multi-faceted approach to an almost full recovery from his wounds with the physician. Dr. Rich, soon to become Professor Rich and Chairman at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences School of Medicine at Bethesda, Maryland, was instrumental in establishing the Vietnam Vascular Registry.
In 2002, Dr. Rich was a leading expert in vascular trauma of the extremities like those suffered by Mike Echanis. In response to her letter to him Dr. Rich wrote the following about this trans-generational SOF Wounded Warrior and his remarkable recovery, rehabilitation and transition from combat disabled to warrior re-enabled:
“Dear Mrs. Echanis – Thank you very much for your communication of 23 August 1979. The additional information that you have provided regarding your son’s activities prior to his tragic death are most valuable to our long-term follow-up in the Vietnam Vascular Registry. Similar to your son’s approach, we continue to hope that our efforts might provide assistance for others in the future who have the misfortune of receiving injuries similar to those of your son, whether in accidents in our civilian life or on the battlefield if that occurs in the future.”
For eight years now I have been researching the life of Mike Echanis. I promised his mom, Pat, who became a close and dear friend during this time, that I would write her son’s story. Today, that book is nearing completion.
And ever since Pat’s passing several years ago, whenever I am in Ontario, I leave flowers at her final resting place…next to her beloved son…Mike.
Greg Walker (ret), USA Special Forces