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Vietnam survivor finds a lot to celebrate in life

You want to believe Bob Wieland, to let the soothing tone of his voice convince you that life is good, even without legs. He tells you Vietnam was a positive experience, even though a mortar shredded the lower half of his body and left him a double amputee. You want to believe him, almost desperately, because then your own routine problems seem more manageable.

Wieland, 44, is a massive man, even in his wheelchair. He looks as though he could best most people in a fight, but he uses his life story and his smile to disarm even the skeptical.

On Tuesday, Wieland was preaching to the converted at a Christian bookstore in Palm Harbor during a book-signing party.

"I have no regrets," Wieland said to a chorus of amens at Haynes Better Books on U.S. 19. "I'm just happy to be alive."

His achievements are awesome, even if measured by the same standards as those of people with legs.

He has walked across the country, using his hands. He used a specially designed three-wheeled bicycle with hand pedals to ride across America last year.

He has finished the imposing Ironman Triathlon. (It took him more than five days to complete the swimming, running and bicycling.)

He has run marathons, including a four-day New York City Marathon in 1986 that riveted the media's attention on him and his quest.

"After almost 3,000 miles across the county, the marathon was a cake walk," Wieland said, no evidence of false modesty crossing his face.

Wieland has detailed his life and athletic achievements in One Step at a Time, published two weeks ago. He gives motivational speeches, touring the world from his home near Los Angeles.

Most things written about Wieland focus on the athletic achievements. Or how he lost his legs in 1969 while trying to save another soldier.

Or even on his acting career (he had a part in the short-lived NBC series Sonny Spoon).

But Wieland said most people miss the point. As a born-again Christian, Wieland takes little credit for what he has done.

"Living is still the best way to celebrate life," he said. "For those who have had to fight for it, life has a flavor that the protected will never know."

He sees no need for the kind of bitter feelings some disabled people harbor, like those of the Vietnam veteran in the movie Born on the Fourth of July.

He hopes a movie of his life can be made, to show another side.

As for athletics, he wants to break a world bench press record later this year, or maybe do another triathlon.

"I think I can still run with the thoroughbreds."