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War friend hopes to jar amnesia victim's memory

Jul. 23, 2013 - 08:33AM   |  
Man with amnesia speaks only Swedish
Man with amnesia speaks only Swedish: Michael Boatwright didn't recognize his own face on an ID card and spoke only Swedish and answered only to Johan Ek when he awoke in a Palm Springs, California, hospital after being found unconscious February 28.
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Michael Boatwright, who refers to himself as Johan Ek after being found unconscious in a motel room, is staying at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif. (Jay Calderon / The Palm Springs, Calif., Desert Su)

PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. — Four decades ago, two mechanics bonded under the hood of an aircraft, hidden in the belly of a massive ship, far off the coast of a country embroiled in war.

One of those men, Glenn Grant, 61, is still haunted by the memories of Vietnam. The other, Michael Thomas Boatwright, also 61, says he has no memory at all.

Grant said Monday he served alongside Boatwright, a Swedish-speaking amnesia patient now in Palm Springs, on the Midway aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War in 1972-73.

This weekend, Grant plans to travel from his home in the Long Beach, Calif., area to visit Boatwright, who has been stuck at Desert Regional Medical Center for five months. It’s unlikely Boatwright will remember his brother-in-arms — or even understand him — but Grant said the visit is worth a shot.

Although some of Boatwright’s friends and family have been located in recent weeks, they all live thousands of miles away, so opportunities to sit down with someone who has firsthand knowledge of his past have been extremely limited. Grant said Boatwright was a talented mechanic who mentored him on the Midway.

“I may not have known him for a hell of a long time, but we worked together for a month — maybe longer,” Grant said. “I’m going to do this for me and for Michael. I just feel so sorry for this guy. I just can’t believe it.”

Boatwright was found unconscious in a Palm Springs motel room at noon Feb. 28. He was sent to Desert Regional, where he woke solely speaking Swedish despite being born in Florida. Boatwright insisted he couldn’t remember his past or why he was in Palm Springs, but subsequent investigations revealed he came to the desert on Feb. 24 speaking English and seeking a job as a tennis coach. The hospital has diagnosed him with a form of dissociative amnesia.

Boatwright has neither insurance nor income, so Desert Regional has funded his five-month stay. Because the hospital believes it would be unsafe to release Boatwright into his own care, staff members have spent months searching for a way to discharge him.

Hospital spokesman Richard Ramhoff said case management staff members are talking to several people who may be able to help Boatwright, including his sister, Michelle Brewer of Louisiana. Brewer, who lost contact with her brother a decade ago, was located by The Desert Sun one week ago.

While Boatwright has been stuck in the hospital, his story has traveled worldwide. The Desert Sun first reported his saga July 7, and the memory mystery has since been published by dozens of news organizations across the globe.

Grant hadn’t thought about his fellow veteran for years. But then he saw the headlines.

“I never heard from him again (after the war), but … when I saw that name on the news article, I was just in total shock and disbelief,” Grant said. “It’s just a name you don’t forget.”

Military service confirmed

When found in February, Boatwright had with him his veteran’s medical card and several other forms of identification. When contacted by Desert Regional, the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed that Boatwright served as a Navy aviation mechanic from 1971 to 1973. The hospital is working to secure veterans disability benefits for Boatwright.

Boatwright’s service during the Vietnam War was also confirmed by Ewa Espling, a woman who dated Boatwright when he lived in Sweden in the 1980s. Boatwright told Espling he repaired helicopters and transported dead or wounded soldiers. The horrors of war left him “damaged” and “restless inside,” she said.

“He was not fighting on the ground but all the images from the war made him run from himself,” she said. “And he tried to find a safe spot. Some days, he told me the only solution was an island without people.”

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