When a 200-pound black bear bit into his cheek, Larry Yepez’s mind traveled to 1967 Vietnam.
“My (U.S. Marine Corps) unit fought for two days in Operation Kingfisher along the north-south border,” the 66-year-old veteran said Friday. “We could hear the (North) Vietnamese yelling ‘Marines – you die!’ that first night.”
“The next day, we were fighting for our lives,” he continued. “When that bear was on top of me, it felt like that day. You know it’s fight or die, and I was fighting for my life.”
The bear attacked Yepez a few feet from his front door in Midpines, a mountain community in Mariposa County, just after 4 a.m. Thursday. Yepez said he left his home to use his detached restroom when he spotted the bear.
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“The bear started to run towards me, so I yelled at it,” Yepez said. “I worked for the (U.S.) Forest Service — that’s what you do.”
Yepez retired from the Forest Service in 2002 after 25 years as a wildland firefighter.
My squad leader and corpsman (from his Vietnam service) actually called me today to congratulate me on still being alive — again.
Larry Yepez, Marine and Vietnam veteran attacked by bear
“I hit him with a plastic flower pot from my porch as he ran towards me,” he continued.
The bear was undeterred, and it immediately took Yepez to the ground. He first started punching the animal with his right hand. When he switched to his left, the bear grabbed onto his hand.
“I could hear something crunching as he had a hold of my hand,” he said. “His eyes were 6 inches away from mine.”
“That’s when he ripped into my face and neck.”
Yepez said the facial attack finally drove home the gravity of the situation: He had to get out, or he would not survive.
He positioned his legs under the bear and pushed as hard as he could. This toppled it for a moment, but the animal immediately resumed its attack, Yepez said.
As it jumped on Yepez a second time, his Yorkshire terrier, Benji, began to bark and nip at the bear’s back legs. The massive animal turned its attention to the dog momentarily, which Yepez said allowed him just enough time for him and Benji to bolt for the door.
“The bear started to push against the door, and I braced my shoulder against it,” he said. “I grabbed a samurai sword in case he pushed through the door.”
Thankfully, Yepez said, the bear didn’t.
As he stood in his living room, bleeding profusely from his legs, arms, face and stomach, the adrenaline subsided just long enough for Yepez to realize he was badly injured. He decided to make a break for his van, which he could use to drive the 9.4 miles to the nearest hospital, John C. Fremont Healthcare District in Mariposa.
As I was driving, I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it.
Larry Yepez, who ran to his van after a bear attack and drove 9.4 miles to a Mariposa hospital
When he left his home the second time, the bear was gone. Yepez ran to his van and drove to the hospital as fast as he could.
“I am a veteran. I was trained in emergency services at the Forest Service. My head was clear about what I needed to do: Get it done, Larry. Move.”
The hospital staff was in disbelief, Yepez said, when he staggered in dripping blood. He told them about the attack, and they set about dressing his wounds and giving him rabies shots.
“Don’t ask me how many stitches I put in,” the doctor told Yepez. He also told Yepez that the stomach wound he suffered was a few inches away from disemboweling him.
Yepez knows he is lucky to be alive.
“My squad leader and corpsman (from his Vietnam service) actually called me today to congratulate me on still being alive — again,” he said.
Yepez was released from the hospital and spent Thursday night and Friday recovering at the home of Don Chambers, a friend and neighbor. Doctors are scheduled to check on his stitched-up body and administer more rabies shots on Sunday.
Probably due to the adrenaline and pain medication, Yepez said, the real pain from the attack was delayed until Friday morning. In addition to the deep lacerations, Yepez also threw his back out when he pushed the bear off.
For Yepez, the attack was a freak accident. He lives in bear country, he says, and he sees plenty of them roaming around. Typically, yelling frightens them away without any problem.
This won’t change the way I live at all.
Larry Yepez, also an avid rock climber
Lt. Chris Stoots of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said Thursday that attacks like this are rare. Bear sightings have been more frequent throughout California as the animals move into populated areas in hopes of finding food and water during the drought.
Stoots said the bear that attacked Yepez will likely be euthanized given the nature of the mauling. There is no specific protocol for this, he added, so the bear will likely be shot in the most humane way possible.
Forensic evidence was collected from Yepez’s home and will be compared to any bears trapped in order to match the attack to the right animal.
12The number of black bear attacks in California since 1980, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife
For Yepez, the next step is getting better.
The veteran, who was awarded a Purple Heart after he was shot twice and injured by shrapnel in Vietnam, said he’s already received some static from the VA Central California Health Care System, which handles all his health care.
Yepez said he submitted a claim to cover his hospital bills in Mariposa, but the VA wants him to drive to Fresno for further wound and rabies treatments.
“I am not really in any condition to drive to Fresno,” he said.
Cenethea Lofbom, a spokeswoman for the Fresno VA hospital, said the VA had received Yepez’s claim and will cover the emergency expenses. His VA doctor on Friday also approved non-VA care for Yepez, meaning he will be able to continue his treatment in Mariposa.
Even as he lies bedridden from a mauling, Yepez said he would never move away from his mountain community.
In fact, the son of a Native American mother even gave himself a new nickname: He who fights bears and lives.