Kerry Nivens still keeps the card he received from a fellow veteran in Branson, Missouri, last November the weekend after Veterans Day.
"Thank you for your service and dedication to our country!" reads the message on front.
"Dear American hero," begins the message on the card's back. "I am not certain as to how to express my gratitude for all you have done to secure my freedom. Please accept this simple card as a small token of my appreciation -- A grateful American citizen."
Likewise, Nivens does his part to ensure veterans receive the appreciation they deserve. He is a board member of the Tan Son Nhut Association and a lifetime member of the Vietnam Veterans Association of America, Huntsville Chapter 1067.
Nivens served as a sergeant with the Air Force in Tan Son Nhut, South Vietnam, from December 1966 to December 1967. He was a petroleum/oils/lubricants fuel specialist with the 377th Supply which was part of the 377th Combat Support Group. The first four months or so of his tour, his mission was distribution which meant refueling the aircraft assigned to that base or any arriving aircraft that needed fueling. He spent the rest of his year's tour with the "Bladder Bird Division," flying on C-123s and C-130s to carry fuel to Army and Marine bases throughout South Vietnam. They provided fuel to those bases which had helicopters.
"All in all, it was not a bad tour," Nivens said of his year in Vietnam. "We had very little attacks. We had a few minor but nothing really bad. The bladder birds, when we were flying, it was not unusual to pick up some small arms fire when we were landing or taking off. They did some damage but nothing serious. Some (of these missions) were a little more interesting than others."
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One particularly harrowing flight occurred in May or June 1967 on a C-130, among his first flights in country. Nivens and the five crew members were delivering fuel to one of the bases up north. It was their second sortie there that day. As they were taking off to return to Tan Son Nhut, the airplane was hit by small arms fire from the Viet Cong on a hillside. "The C-130's not a fast airplane so they had a good target," Nivens said.
The airplane, which had some damage to the landing gear, made it back to Tan Son Nhut. But it had to make, what Nivens calls, a "controlled crash" landing. The pilot had control of the airplane but the landing wasn't normal, in other words. All six men got off the plane uninjured as fast as they could, and the aircraft survived, too.
"It flew again, lived to see another day. And we did, too," Nivens said. "Thanks to a good crew, and thanks to the good Lord."
His return from Vietnam to his native Alabama wasn't like the rude welcoming received by veterans in other parts of the United States. Nivens did see some negative reaction at a crowded airport in California.
"We had a couple of 'love childs' come in and smarted off to some Army troops, but they didn't last long," he said, laughing.
Nivens, 70, originally from Chelsea, graduated from Shelby County High School in May 1964 and joined the Air Force that September. He left the service as a sergeant in September 1968. He met his wife, Margaret, on a blind date about a month after returning from Vietnam. And they celebrated their 46th anniversary Feb. 1.
They have three grown children and four grandchildren. Phillip, 44, who works for defense contractor SAIC, lives in Harvest with his wife and two children. Christy Killen, 40, and her husband and two children reside in Huntsville. Adrienne Towry, 27, and her husband live in Owens Cross Roads.
Nivens worked 14 years for Spirit Coach LLC, a tour bus company, before retiring as operations manager in 2011. He still works part time for the company. His brother, Mike, 73, of Huntsville, is retired from the banking industry and also served four years in the Air Force.
"When I can I like to hunt, and play on the computer and I collect diecast model cars," Nivens said. "And I spend a lot of my time working with the Tan Son Nhut Association."
The association will have its 17th annual reunion May 28-31 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Next year's reunion, probably sometime in June 2016, will be in Huntsville. For information, visit www.tsna.org or email Nivens at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Today we (Vietnam veterans) are getting more greetings and more thank yous. It's coming late in life," Nivens said. "Some of the guys don't appreciate it, I do. I wish we'd got it 50 years ago but we didn't."