Thursday, October 18, 2012


View from Marble Mountain on coast near Danang. Kenny's old Marine base was located down this road.
When I first met Kenny in Vietnam, I never would have thought that this easygoing American had a rough and dangerous past. His voice is pleasant and calm. He’s a man that seems comfortable with himself, and with his current surroundings in Vietnam. He’s big, tall, and in great physical shape. You wouldn’t think that he’s 61 years old. His name fits his personality well. it’s not Kenneth, or Ken, it’s Kenny. He’s a plain talking, friendly mid-westerner from Iowa with an eagle tattoo on his forearm.

An English teacher friend introduced us, and with Kenny’s easygoing demeanor, he was always good to chat with over a beer. It was during these chats that I learned about his military past.

Kenny is a former US Marine, who served as a medic with a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) back in 1969. Nicknamed, ‘Lurps’, they were much like commandos, an elite unit that often fought behind enemy lines. Although he was based just south of Danang, Kenny spent much of his time in the field across the border in Laos. There he took part in dangerous reconnaissance missions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the infamous supply line of the communist forces. This was at a time when ‘officially’, there were no American soldiers fighting in Laos.

Sometimes his unit operated in jungle so dense, that there weren’t clearings big enough that would allow helicopters to land and take them out. On those missions, helicopters had to hoist his unit out of the jungle, lifting them above the forested canopy on the end of a long cable.

As a LRRP medic, Kenny had to be not just a fighter, but also a field doctor, treating the war wounds of many of his fallen comrades. Taking part in many dangerous missions, it wasn’t long before he was wounded himself. He saw the worst side of war. The Vietnam War left many strong men physically and emotionally scarred, including Kenny.

After he returned to the states, like many Vietnam veterans, Kenny faced a difficult life. He had a series of failed marriages. At one point, he was living out of a van. He basically went from being an elite soldier, to a hippie.

With his background as a medic, he knew a lot about drugs. After he left the military, he became a heroin addict. But Kenny’s tough. Over time he eventually overcame his heroin addiction. As he grew older, another challenge came along: throat cancer. Kenny beat that too.

These days Kenny is still affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his war experiences. “I still have nightmares,” he once told me, “but not as much as I used to.” More than anything else, Kenny is a survivor.

When America’s soldiers finished their tour of duty in Vietnam, most left and never came back. Kenny is a Vietnam veteran who not only returned, but he now calls Southeast Asia home. He doesn’t keep a regular apartment. He spends a lot of time living in guest houses between Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries in the region. He also speaks Vietnamese, not fluently, but well enough to get by.

For the most part, Kenny has come to terms with his past, and is proud of his military service back in the 60’s. “I’m still Semper Fi,” he says, a shortened marine mantra which means, “Always Faithful”. When Kenny walks down the street, he still stands tall, with the good posture and confident step that he learned as a young marine.
Children play in southeastern Laos river near the former Ho Chi Minh Trail, Kenny's unit fought near here
Kenny’s been free of heroin and other hard drugs for years, but he’s still no angel. Today he sometimes smokes marijuana, and occasionally patronizes prostitutes. He’s no wild man though. He prefers to spend more of his time sharing stories with friends over a cocktail, relaxing and playing pool. I played him a sometimes, and rarely won.

Despite all that Kenny’s endured, he has a balance to his life now, and seems to have found peace with himself. As a result of the PTSD, he now gets disability and social security. With the low cost of living in Vietnam, this gives him more money than he needs. He wouldn’t call himself retired though. Kenny  occasionally leads scuba diving trips around southeast Asia. These are not trips for the weak; he runs them similar to how things were back when he was a marine. His tours cover multiple countries, traveling fast, while getting in as many scuba dives as they can.

“I don’t need the money. I do these trips to give myself something to do,” he told me. Scuba diving is a passion for him.

One day, Kenny was at a train station in Vietnam, and an older porter came to help him with his bags. Being his friendly self, and speaking some Vietnamese, Kenny struck up a conversation with him. It turned out the porter was also a war veteran, a former soldier of the North Vietnamese Army. After the two spoke for a while, Kenny discovered that this old soldier had also fought in the same valley of Laos where Kenny used to fight along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was possible that their units had even fought against each other. Like Kenny, this old soldier had been wounded too.

But that was years ago. All the old hatreds were gone, and the past was past. When before these men would have quickly killed each other, now they could talk and share stories.

Kenny has his pension, so he isn’t in need of anything. On the other hand, the other old veteran’s pension is very small, which is why he still has to work as a train station porter.

Before they parted, Kenny held out his hand to his old adversary. “Peace,” Kenny said to him.

The other veteran shook his hand, and smiled. ”Peace,” he said back in agreement.

 The old hatreds between these two old warriors, had been replaced with mutual respect.

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