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Local veteran's service only scratches the surface

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William Ferguson’s life story deserves a book, which as he’s tucked away in a back corner of a Starbucks he admits he’s working on writing.

He rarely drinks coffee. He could use a little caffeine though so today he will but only after the brew has been sweetened. He’s thoughtful and candid but soft spoken because of vocal cord dysfunction. That’s another reason for the coffee, because his throat, courage and recollection could all use a little warming up before he begins.

The 48-year-old slowly gains speed as memories leak one into another. He speaks freely, painting each thought more vivid and inclusive than the one before. He embraces long pauses at times. A scattered memory — due in part to age and in part to unusual circumstances — is only half responsible for the breaks in thought. More often it’s the uncomfortable feelings being rehashed, emotions he’s kept mostly suppressed and stowed away. He admits his memory may not be perfect, but then neither is the story. It’s colorful and unusual. It bounces around but it’s his story to tell and this is how he best remembers it.

“It looked like I was done,” he begins. “I was going to be on the street. My mind was shot. My body was riddled.

“I always feel God’s been looking after me.”

William was born in Maryland but moved with his mother and father across the country to Washington and then down to Texas before he was 6 years old. His parents married young — his mother was 16 and his father 20 — and eventually divorced before William was a teenager.

“Pretty rough, pretty crappy,” William recalls poignantly. “That’s all forgiven and done with. Everyone’s not perfect but they’re all Christian and in church now.”

William has a way of finding a silver lining through even the toughest tribulations.

He remembers his mother struggling after the divorce. She fought to make ends meet and William and his younger sister bounced around with her from the homes of friends or relatives and sometimes even sleeping in rest stops. His mom eventually settled down with a steady boyfriend who William refers to as his stepdad. They all moved to Austin together when William was 13 years old. He remembers driving into his new town on a hill that overlooked the entire city. He looked out the front of the van window and stared wide-eyed in awe of the way the city’s lights twinkled in the night. Their van broke down just as they arrived. They rolled into the parking lot of a church that set the family up with a cozy trailer. They eventually upgraded into low-income apartments. Still, home life remained unstable.

His stepdad was a craftsman, who created some beautiful pieces out of wood. He was maybe most proud of the bar he built inside their home. Its florescent paint would come alive under the black lights when he would host parties.

“I kind of had free reign of walking and hanging out in places,” William remembers. “I was kind of going down the wrong path, stealing candy and pool balls.”

William once had appendicitis with gangrene that went undiagnosed for days until he threw up on his desk during class. He ended up missing so much school between the hospital and recovery that he failed seventh grade.

He transferred to a private school that operated on a pace system that would allow him to catch up. His mother was supposed to clean the school in the evenings to help pay his tuition but had to stay home with his youngest sister. William instead ended up working at a plant nursery at the front of their apartment complex. His $175 checks would go toward his tuition.

William’s options were limited. He stayed in Texarkana some with his father who had since remarried but things began to fall apart over there too.

A family William met through the church that he landed at his first night in Austin eventually agreed to adopt him. They lived in Augusta, Ga. now and had a son about his age. The couple had a strong presence in church, the husband was an ordained minister and youth leader. They were both teachers and had both served in the Navy, which was ironic to William because his father and stepdad had both served in the Navy too. His grandfather had also fought in Normandy and made it back home. So at 13 years old, William’s father and mother thought it was best to sign over guardianship. William departed Texarkana alone on a Greyhound bus headed for a new life in Augusta.

“That’s a long freaking ride,” he said. “My foster parents, God sent. I’m thankful every day.”

The structure and expectations were much different in William’s new life. His foster parents rejected his plans to enjoy a gap year after high school. They offered three options upon graduation: go to college, enter the work force or join the military. William joined the Navy. The recruiting officer tried to talk him into joining for three years. William suggested they just round it off to an even four. He failed the hearing test initially so his foster parents took away his Walkman for a month. William passed the hearing test the second time around.

The Navy taught William even more discipline and structure. He volunteered to serve as chaplain during boot camp in the Great Lakes. He admittedly was sidetracked by the beach parties while attending signalman school in Orlando and despite finishing second in his class, he landed undesignated in Charleston rather than Japan. It was a lesson learned. William worked through the grunt work to earn a boatswain’s mate designation and then eventually became a master helmsman during the Gulf War.

“I was kind of a jack of all trades,” he said.

He worked on a reservist ship, an air, surface and sub anti-warfare ship with a CWIS that looked like R2-D2 from Star Wars and ripped off 3,000 rounds a minute overlooking the single flight deck. There was a single-arm missile launcher on the Focsle, two helo hangers on the flight deck, and various other weapon systems. 

William earned a number of accolades for his service, including the National Defense Service Medal and the Naval Reserve Sea Service ribbon. He ran a hazardous material locker and built up enough trust to become a lead investigator for general quarters fire situations. He was a nozzle man on a hose for a while. He’d stand watch when the ship was ashore and served as a helmsman when it was at sea. His ship assisted with a lot of drug operations in South America in the early ‘90s. He’d float through the Panama Canal to the sound of machine gun fire off in the jungle. His ship once helped the Coast Guard make one of the largest cocaine busts ever in South America. He saved lives floating at sea as part of a naval humanitarian operation in Haiti.

William met his now ex-wife during his last year in the Navy at a late-night club called The Treehouse. It was open later than the other bars in downtown Charleston and as such attracted an eclectic crowd. The sign on the door read, “The Treehouse is a mixed club. Gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Jewish, gentile, vampire and Martians are all welcome.”

“It was technically a gay bar,” William explained. “But it was cool because everybody went.”

William and his ex-wife met outside in the club’s parking lot. He first spotted the Texas license plates on the car she was in. He jotted her number down on a piece of paper and tucked it away in his overalls. He awoke the next morning to discover his clothes were missing. He panicked initially before realizing his buddy, still drunk from the night before, had mistakenly worn his clothes to muster that morning. He was eventually able to recover the phone number. He gets choked up just thinking about it.

“That number,” he begins before a lengthy pause. “I mean, divine intervention. I believe in it. So much in my life that’s happened now, hinged on that number.”

William knew he was going to marry her after just two months but the couple waited eight before wedding privately, in part, to take advantage of the Navy’s higher compensation for married couples before William’s four-year commitment ended.

“We were both kind of rebels,” William said.

William worked a few different jobs once he was out of the Navy. He worked a deli counter at a private resort for a while and later sold furniture, which he hated. A police officer that used to visit his deli for his specially made calzones one day suggested he pursue a career as a paramedic. William jumped at the idea, the same guy who once threw up over a game of Risk years ago at the sight of a bloody ear, was becoming an EMT, although eventually even that wasn’t enough.

“I was getting tired of that. I was built for more,” he said. “I wanted a faster paced career helping others.”

William retained his job as an nationally registered intermediate EMT while joining the Army National Guard as a combat medic in 1996. He sought the structured environment of the military in his life once again but he also missed the traveling. He took care of injured soldiers within his unit. William says sometimes soldiers would try to pass off previous injuries as service related to gain compensation.

“It was our job to pick up on that,” he said. “And since I wasn’t a sucker, and coming from my background, my discernment for people is unbelievable. I can spend five minutes with somebody and I’ll know you.”

William’s daughter was born in 1999, the same year he was completing his commitment to the National Guard. He was in school and his ex-wife was a registered nurse at the time. Money was becoming tighter and tensions between the two were rising.

“It was getting intense at home, mentally and with a new born,” he said. “I’m surprised I’ve been able to remember as much as I have … because my memory is usually pretty rough.”

William is considered 100 percent disabled because of various ailments and has been for four years now. He figures his marriage began to crumble about the same time as his health. He and his ex-wife eventually divorced about five years ago after 20 years of marriage.

“Pretty much, my medical stuff pushed everything over the edge,” he said.

William says he’s been generally healthy most of his life. He played various sports growing up. He played a lot of pickup basketball at church as an adult. He was on a soccer team in the Navy that once scrimmaged a Lithuanian Olympic team. He even made a now-defunct semi-pro football team once.

A series of medical complications changed his life though. He injured his neck and back years ago while carrying a gangplank on a ship during his time in the Navy. He still struggles with those injuries today. He had major sinus surgery in 2010 that unintentionally released bacteria into his lungs. He started having bronchial spasms and respiratory problems in the coming months. He was never a smoker. Countless trips to the emergency room over the next few years couldn’t resolve the issues. He also suffered from kidney stones, passing 38 in 15 years.

Medical expenses piled up and William struggled to make ends meet. He resorted to food stamps for about a year and a half. He would sweat every time he had to checkout at the grocery store. He avoided filing for disability for years but it all eventually became too much for him to handle on his own.

“It was becoming hell,” he said. “It was taking a toll on my mind. My sleep is messed up. It’s taking a toll on my marriage … Everything hit the fan. The medical stuff had become too intense. We were at each other a lot.”

William needed lung surgery a few years ago and subsequent breathing treatments followed. He went into respiratory failure at the VA hospital emergency room and spent the next nine days on a ventilator in an induced coma.

“It was hell,” he recalls. “I had three hellacious dreams and I know it was Satan trying to kill me.”

His memory hasn’t been the same since. Oddly enough, though, the coma actually seemed to help connect the scattered pieces of his life. His biological parents traveled together to come visit him. His foster dad came to help too. His ex-wife sat by his side for five days. William eventually recovered but his nerves were shot. He couldn’t swallow and picked up vocal cord dysfunction he believes because he was on the ventilator too long. Talking for any length of significance was impossible. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t even write his own name. He went through speech therapy and about six months after getting out of ICU returned for bronchial thermoplastic surgery.

Williams credits his daughter for helping him get through his toughest years. His mission to provide a strong upbringing for her, one like he never had, constantly motivated him to preserver through the ailments. He lights up at every mention of her. His daughter never complained about driving him to the hospital at 2 a.m. on school nights. He was happy to hit a nebulizer to control his breathing before he officiated her swim meets. She graduated top three of her class and was a six-time swimming state champion along with a list of other awards and designations in high school. She’s now a sophomore in college and the greatest triumph of his life.

“So with all that being said, it was hell the past four years,” William said. “After the divorce, going through the divorce, passing away, surviving, making it back, learning how to do everything all over.”

William is medically retired now but joined American Legion Post 136 a couple years ago because he refuses to sit at home. He figures the renewed sense of military was a comforting feeling. He rose to second vice commander and eventually moved into a role as the special events director, now handling branding, social media for fundraising initiatives and such.

He fell into an alternative jazz rock group and actually plays in a couple bands. His music is part of his therapy, both mentally and physically. He even has a studio in his house now. One of the songs he wrote is titled I am Job/e, which he explains as “most people look at suffering, it’s not fun. It sucks. But we usually become stronger, wiser from it. There’s a gift from it.”

He’s started his own LLC and has plans to sell faith-based shirts and music, maybe together, and plans to donate part of the proceeds to others in need.

His story is now his testimony. He usually cries when telling it. He’s been chatting for nearly three hours now, something that wouldn’t have been possible even a year ago. But this is important to him. He wants his testimony heard.

“I’m making it all work to my advantage now,” he explains. “People have been telling me to write a book for years. For that book to be really good, there needs to be a hook at the end. So what did you do?

“I’m bringing it all together and making it work. I will help people.”

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