Out of the woods. John Woods Jr. discusses his life and legacy

Out of the woods. John Woods Jr. discusses his life and legacy
Woods and his wife, Donna Cramer, after a dinner on the Potomac.

By Lexie Jordan | 

In September of 1967, when John Woods, Jr. was 24 years old, he was deployed to Vietnam. A little over a month later, after celebrating his 25th birthday, he was flying a helicopter near the Cambodian border and was shot down.

“It was on a Friday afternoon at 3 o’clock. It took them until 7 o’clock at night to cut me out of the aircraft,” Woods said.

Woods suffered a plethora of leg injuries and remained in a hospital in Vietnam for a month where he went into cardiac arrest twice while on the operating table and had pneumonia. He was then transported to a hospital in Japan.

“When [the Japanese doctor] had finished reading through my chart he looked at me and said, ‘Lieutenant, there is no way medically that you could have survived the cardiac arrest, shock and loss of blood. You are a ghost.’”

Woods was born in Washington D.C. in 1942. His father worked on the Hill, was in the Army at the Pentagon during World War II and went to law school at Georgetown at night. Once the war ended, Woods, his parents and three younger siblings moved to Rock Hill, SC where he spent the rest of his childhood.

Woods’ dream was to go to school at Duke University and study engineering; however, he was unable to afford it and attended The Citadel where he was in the Army ROTC and studied engineering. When he was in his junior year, his dream came true and he went to Duke for graduate school where he got his masters in engineering.

Upon graduating from Duke, Woods went to Ft. Belvoir in July of 1966. He then was an executive officer for an advanced training company until that November. Following that, he went to flight school in Texas and then advanced flight school in Alabama. He graduated in August of1967.

A month after graduating, he was deployed – or, as Woods likes to put it, he got his “all expenses paid trip to Vietnam.”

His return to the United States was bittersweet. He was put in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD on Dec. 14, 1967. On his drive in the ambulance to the hospital, he asked the drivers to take him through the capital.

“I was in a full body cast, but I remember going by the capital and seeing the flags flying, and I was in tears,” Woods said.

Woods spent the next three years commuting from Old Town to Walter Reed where he would go for various surgeries and physical therapy. His goal was to be able to fly again.

“I hold a military record of 665 days of convalescent leave,” Woods said as he recalled all the days he was in and out of the hospital being the orthopedists’ “project”.

In the spring of 1970, Woods was deemed okay to fly again. The Corp of Engineers asked him to come work with them; however, after receiving advice from higher ranked officers, he chose to take a medical retirement and be an engineer outside of the Army.

In September of 1970, Woods got a job at an engineering firm that was offered to him by a friend, George Fortune, who lived down the street from him in Alexandria. He then retired from the Army in October.

Woods worked with Fortune and became the structural engineer at FDE, later renamed Woods Peacock Engineering Consultants. He was an architectural designer primarily in Washington, D.C. and northern Virginia. He received his professional engineering license in 1975 and became a minority owner in 1976.

During his time working as an engineer, Woods was a part of many successful projects, namely the building of the Torpedo Factory in Old Town and the Alexandria Courthouse. He also had a vested interest in maintaining the historic aspect of OldTown.

“I worked on many historic houses here in Old Town, and I am very proud of the fact that, when I retired, real estate agents and small contractors often said, ‘John, we wish you hadn’t retired.’”

Woods also traveled to every continent and 45 countries throughout his career do ing renovations, restorations construction and physical security upgrades for the U.S. State Department.

“Rome is one of my favorite places, mostly because I got to go five different times,” Woods said.

Woods was also very busy outside of his engineering career. He served as the chairman of the Mayor’s Commission for the Disabled and around 1980 was asked to serve on the Governor’s Commission for the Disabled. He also was very active in the Alexandria Red Cross and Alexandria Chamber of Commerce of which he became president in 1985.

He was not very involved with veteran related programs until 1979 when he went out to dinner with some old Army friends.

“We were talking about our services in Vietnam and one of these individuals called me after that dinner and asked me if, as an engineer, I would be interested in participating with the building of the Vietnam Memorial, and I agreed,” Woods said.

Woods served on the board of the Veteran Fund for the next 40 years primarily as treasurer and stepped down last December. He is now a board member emeritus.

“My intent was that Viet- nam veterans like me that are alive, when we are at the memorial, we see ourselves reflected in the black granite,” Woods said. “We had no idea that we would have as many people visiting the memo- rial each year as we do. To believe that I had a part in that is overwhelming.”

Woods said that one of his biggest frustrations is how divided this country is.

“When I was flying helicopters in Vietnam, I was not flying for democrats or republicans, I was flying for Americans to exercise all the privileges that we have.”

Woods retired from his job as an engineer in 2019 and now spends his time with his wife, Donna Cramer, at their house in Old Town.

He noted how COVID-19 stunted his post-retirement traveling abilities, and now that it’s clearing up, he plans on traveling as much as he can. He spent this past Christmas in Eu- rope with his wife and two kids.

This coming fall, Woods and Cramer plan on traveling across Canada trying all the delicacies.

“My wife and I like to say that we are foodies and wineies, but if the food’s not good we’re whinies,” Woods said with a laugh.

Regardless of where Woods’ heads next, it is sure to be an adventure.