Blinded in Vietnam, Doug Slotten led life of strength, courage, accomplishment
Was the remarkable life of Doug Slotten a matter of destiny or the random nature of life – like the feather that floats on a breeze in the movie “Forrest Gump,” prompting Forrest to observe, “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we are all just floating around accidental like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both.”
Doug Slotten’s “feather” lifted him from his parents’ farm home in Barnum to the University of Iowa to the financial district of Chicago to the battlefields of Vietnam (where he lost his eyesight and half of his right leg) to law school at Arizona State University to a job with the federal government in Washington, D.C., and, one day in the near future, to his burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Slotten died Sept. 29 of prostate cancer under hospice care at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland., surrounded by family – his wife Elin, twin daughters Chelsi and Kirsten, sisters Deanna and Nancy, and brother Lyle. He was 76.
Less than a month after his death, the circle of life – and Doug’s first name – continued with the birth of the first grandchild for Elin and Doug – Maxwell Douglas Pavlovic, born Oct. 24 in San Francisco, California, to daughter Kirsten and her husband, Alex.
“I think my dad would be super happy and proud,” Kirsten said. “Max has his chin (and mine!) and also his furrowed brow when he’s thinking really hard or displeased by something.”
It was a December day in 1970 when Army Sgt. Douglas Slotten stepped on a land mine while on a reconnaissance patrol in South Vietnam, attached to the 101st Airborne Division. He was quickly evacuated to a hospital ship, but doctors were unable to save his sight and were forced to amputate the lower half of his right leg.
Call it his destiny or the random nature of life, this much is true: the injuries changed the course of Slotten’s life and all the lives he touched for the next 53 years.
Slotten, a recipient of the Purple Heart, set out with resolve and courage on a future far removed from the farm where he grew up – a future that took him as a blind amputee to law school in Arizona, an impactful 45-year career with the Federal Communications Commission in the nation’s capital, and a marriage that in its 37 years produced twin daughters and the grandson who bears his name.
Slotten will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with a memorial stone in Iowa. Because of a backlog of burials at Arlington, his family expects it could take at least a year but plans to hold two memorial services, one in early 2024 at Christ Episcopal Church in Kensington, Maryland., and the other at the church of his childhood, Fulton Lutheran Church of Roelyn.
Heroes are buried at Arlington – and Slotten was a hero. But in a larger way than what happened to him in Vietnam.
“While many may see Douglas as a war hero, I see him as a life hero,” said his sister, Deanna. “What makes him so special is not what happened to him in war, but rather what he did after that and how he did it. He was not bitter, didn’t feel sorry for himself. Instead, he set about figuring out how to continue with the dreams he had and then pursued them with tenacity and great success. He truly overcame so many obstacles that would give most people pause, but remained ever humble and grateful for the life he had.”
The arrival of Veterans Day 2023 sparked a memory from daughter Chelsi:
“He used to come in our school classrooms to talk on Veterans Day on what he did in the Vietnam War,” she said. “One of the stories he would tell was being on a hospital ship after he was injured and an Army chaplain coming in to talk to him. The chaplain had a bit of a prepared speech on the meaning of life and such and started in on the speech. My dad interrupted and said, ‘You’re wasting your time. A lot of people say that. You don’t understand. I was lucky enough to be born in a free country. This was my price that I’m willing to pay so that my family can live in a free country.’ I don’t know if it ever occurred to him to feel bad or resentful. He didn’t let it define his life or purpose.”
Douglas Lee Slotten’s roots trace to a farm in Roelyn. He was born in Fort Dodge on Dec. 22, 1946, to Leo Russell Slotten and Evelyn Woods Slotten. He was the oldest of four children – including sisters Deanna Reifsteck of Elysian, Minnesota., and Nancy Randolph of Garden City, Kansas., and brother Lyle Slotten of San Bernardino, California. Their maternal grandparents, Nellie and Lewis Woods, lived in Fort Dodge until their deaths. Their aunt, Betty Slotten, is a Fort Dodge resident.
When the family moved to another farm near Barnum, Doug commuted to Cedar Valley High School in Somers for his senior year and graduated in 1965. His siblings graduated from Northwest Webster High School. A classmate of Doug’s at Cedar Valley, Daryl Beall of Fort Dodge, said, “His classmates respected and admired him, but he made us feel a bit inadequate. He accomplished so much blind and with an artificial leg. Doug’s life and death and legacy are reminders that our days are numbered. We must celebrate every day we have on this earth.”
Slotten attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City and received a bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1969. Friends say his propensity at poker and ironing shirts for fellow students helped finance his education. He remained a dedicated Hawkeye sports fan, especially basketball, for the rest of his life.
His first job out of Iowa City was in Chicago with a major accounting firm, Ernst & Ernst (now known as Ernst & Young) but his employment was brief when he was drafted in August 1969. It was at Fort Des Moines where he met Paul Onerheim of Ottumwa, who would become a lifelong friend. Together, they attended Army basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana., and then advanced infantry training. Slotten was promoted to sergeant (E-5) and after assignments in Georgia and Kansas got his orders for Vietnam. He shipped out Nov. 7, 1970.
Five weeks into Vietnam, he was with a reconnaissance platoon on Dec. 14, 1970, assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, that was landed by helicopter on a hilltop in hazardous territory north of Hue.
“We were checking the area,” he recalled in a 1971 interview with the Des Moines Tribune. “I went off to one side, looking for signs of the enemy. Our group had found one mine. I found the second. I stepped on it.”
Within an hour he was flown in a military helicopter to the USS Sanctuary, a Navy hospital ship, where he stayed 17 days. After spending New Years Eve at the Da Nang airport, he was flown to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington.
He was given home leave and returned to Iowa with crutches and a wheelchair. “It was a happy time and it was a hard time,” Slotten told Lois Johnson of The Messenger in a Nov. 5, 1971, interview. “It was harder for the folks than for me. I’d had a month to adjust. They hadn’t. I had ideas about how to function. They had to learn.”
He came to Fort Dodge during the week and stayed with his grandparents and walked daily from their home at 4 Johnson Place to downtown.
“In this way,” he told The Messenger, “I can find out how people react to me. I get out and visit, mingle with people, go into stores and buy things and order meals in restaurants by myself. My success in these experiences will help decide my future.”
Slotten returned to Walter Reed – where he learned to read Braille – and then entered Hines Veterans Hospital in Chicago for intensive training in how to live as a blind person and how to walk with an artificial leg. He returned to the University of Iowa as a special student and took three courses, and remarkably, as a blind student, completed the fourth and final section of the Certified Public Accountant test – one he had failed earlier when sighted.
Slotten decided to pursue an earlier ambition of entering law school. He applied and was admitted to Arizona State University School of Law, becoming the first totally blind person to enter the law school. With a Braille typewriter and several tape recorders and living alone in a student-filled apartment complex in Tempe, he graduated cum laude and in August 1975 joined the Federal Communications Commission as an attorney and made the move to Washington – where he would live the rest of his life. Three years later, he was named Outstanding Handicapped Federal Employee of the Year. He commuted to work by bus and train for most of his career, before taking cabs and Ubers in his later years. He retired in 2021.
“In his years with the FCC, Doug became in essence a historian for the commission,” said his longtime friend Jim Kracht, a tax and finance attorney for Miami-Dade County for 37 years, and who is blind. “He’d been there so long, he knew the history, and he had an incredibly retentive mind. Doug’s great strength was being a good listener. Doug was not outgoing. He was very quiet but deliberate. And when he talked, you listened to him. He wouldn’t give you 200 words when 20 would do.”
Weeks after his death, at the FCC’s October Open Meeting, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel delivered a touching tribute to Slotten and his legacy in his more than four decades of service.
“Doug’s contributions helped shape the telecommunications marketplace and set the stage for the broadband revolution,” she said, adding that he was “a kind, patient and selfless teacher – he was always generous with his knowledge and his friendship. Doug also reminded all of us that life can hold great things, even in the face of challenges. He will continue to inspire us, as long as we hold his memory close.”
Slotten’s family was hugely important to him, said his wife Elin Wackernagel-Slotten, and he doted on their twin daughters, Kirsten and Chelsi, born July 8, 1988. It was only after her last ultrasound examination that they knew she was delivering twins. Elin recalled, “The nurse turned to Doug and said, what do you think of that, Mr. Slotten? There was no answer, so she asked again. He replied, ‘That’s two college tuitions.'”
How did they meet? Elin responded, “Doug loved it when people asked us how we met. Doug being Norwegian and a Slotten, he was not one to show emotion, but he would get this little wicked grin and say, ‘a blind date.'” She was a schoolteacher (with a master’s in special education) in Chevy Chase and the next morning, he sent a dozen red roses to her classroom. Their first date was in February 1986 and they were married eight months later.
“From the very beginning, what Doug said attracted him to me, I never cut him any quarters. I treated him like any other human being. The first time we went out to meet his parents and got off the plane, his father tried to take Doug’s suitcase. I turned to Russell and said, ‘No, Doug can do it.’ He was a loyal friend and one of the best fathers I’ve ever known. If you put a baby in his arms, he would go all goo-goo face.”
Kirsten Slotten is a senior vice president with Weber Shandwick, a public relations and marketing firm, in San Francisco. Her husband Alex covers the Giants for NBC Sports Bay Area (with Alex’s baseball background, he bonded immediately with Doug, a lifelong Cardinals fan). She wrote her college admissions essay for entry to New York University on what it was like growing up with a dad who is blind.
“He wasn’t defined by what happened to him,” she said, “he never let that impact how he approached life. He gave his best at everything he did, whether with the FCC or raising us. He was very committed to people. Growing up, his blindness was just a part of our lives. We just had to do things different – like reading signs for him at a museum or reading a menu at a restaurant.”
Dr. Chelsi Slotten is employed by Sage Publications, an academic publisher of books, journals and digital library resources, out of its London office but working remotely from Edinburgh, Scotland, where she lives with husband Guy Taylor, a software engineer and native Scot. She has a PhD in anthropology with a specialization in archaeology from American University in Washington.
“He was the absolute best dad,” she said. “He was there for every ballet recital, riding competition, graduation, help with homework, answering tax questions as we got older, there to bounce ideas off of for potential PhD work (he even read along some of my course books with me so we could discuss), etc. If we needed something he was there for it. He was also just great to hang out with. Every year for his birthday (a delayed present because of the season), we would go to a Nats game, although he was a lifelong Cardinals fan. For his 70th birthday my sister and I took him to Busch Stadium in St. Louis for a couple games because he’d never been to the park. We did two games and a trip to the Cardinals museum. Walking through the museum we would describe to him what the objects were and read signs and 95% of the time he had a story to go with the object we were talking about.”
One of his best friends, Paul Onerheim, of Lake Stevens, Washington., believes Slotten’s name should be included on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. He believes the prostate cancer that took Slotten’s life “was likely caused by exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam. The risk of prostate cancer is almost doubled for those who served in Vietnam, including a 75% increase in high-risk, aggressive forms of the disease.”
“Doug lived a positive, productive life under circumstances others would say were difficult,” Onerheim added. “Others in Doug’s situation would have given up 50 years ago. Not Doug. Doug was blessed to be a blessing. Rest in peace, my dear friend. Your work is done.”