Between Jan. 12, 1962, and March 29, 1973, nearly 3,000,000 of America’s young men traveled 8,000 miles from home to fight in jungles of a country they had never heard of to help people they knew nothing about fight for freedom from an enemy they didn’t recognize.
Nearly 58,000 of these American Vietnam War veterans never made it back to the U.S. alive, and of those who came home, many were injured with physical scars and harbored emotional and mental scars. Very few received a hero’s welcome. My father was one of them.
Pvt. Kenneth D. David joined the U.S. Army in March 1971. He attended basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana – something I didn’t learn until I joined the Department of the Army as a civilian in 2004 and Fort Polk was my first duty station, but I digress. He then went to ordnance school at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama.
In September 1971, he arrived at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, for his one-year assignment with the 611th Ordnance Company as an ammunition specialist.
My daddy was one of those Vietnam War veterans who returned with no physical scars, but the emotional and mental scars ran deep. He never talked much about his service in Vietnam.
I know he had nightmares. As a small child and into my preteen years, I remember periodically hearing him scream in the middle of the night. He once told me about the smell of lyme bringing back memories of dead bodies in Vietnam. But what he repeated to me often was that so many Soldiers who returned from Vietnam were mistreated, disrespected, and forgotten. He said many Soldiers were spat upon by strangers and even from members of their communities. He never told me if he was one of those, but as deeply as it affected him, I suspect he may have been.
Those wounds my father carried around in his mind and soul created one of the most empathetic, loving and caring men I’ve ever known in my life. He truly cared about the Soldiers he led. He was a mentor; he was a coach – basketball and football; and often he was a stand-in father figure for many young Soldiers. On national holidays, daddy would go through the barracks and just invite those left there and alone to come with him for a home-cooked meal. I grew up watching my daddy care about and care for his Soldiers.
In December 1991, now Chief Warrant Officer 3 David, laced up his boots for the last time when he retired from the Army from his last assignment at Redstone Arsenal, a duty station that bracketed his 20-year military career.
A few months later he was hired as the Limestone County Veterans Affairs Officer. My dad spent the next, and last, 10 years of his life serving veterans of all ages, ensuring they received the benefits they deserved through the paperwork fight he waged for them. He also ensured their service was honored and remembered through countless Memorial Day, Veterans Day and special events he organized and hosted in Athens.
I didn’t think he would be able to top his project of the Alabama Vietnam Veterans Memorial he undertook to recognize and honor all of Alabama’s residents who died while serving in Vietnam. I helped him, then in my early 20s, cross reference names and ensure the list was complete. He didn’t want anyone forgotten. If you’ve never seen it, stop at the Welcome Center on I-65 a few miles into the north end of the state. It is truly a beautiful monument and memorial.
His crowning achievement though was the Alabama Veterans Museum in Athens. He was the initiator and founder of this amazing tribute to Limestone County’s veterans. It started as a 50th anniversary of World War II display. He had an entire room full of donations but many of those artifacts and memorabilia were never picked up after the event. He wanted to ensure these veterans’ service and sacrifice were always remembered and the idea for the museum was born.
In March 2002, my daddy retired for the second time because he was fighting his second round of cancer, the final battle of his time in Vietnam thanks to Agent Orange. In November 2002, my father, my hero, passed away in the hospital from his third bout with cancer, the same week the Veterans Museum had its grand opening. He never got to see it grow and how they unfailingly honor veterans in everything they do. But it was his heart and love for Soldiers and veterans that planted the seed.
The scars my daddy carried and the battles he fought created a beautiful gift. His legacy of caring for and honoring veterans touched so many lives, and through the Alabama Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Alabama Veterans Museum, he ensures that Vietnam veterans, and the veterans from all of America’s other wars and conflicts, continue to be remembered.
So, today, on National Vietnam War Veterans Day, I want to thank all the Vietnam veterans who never received a thank you upon their return and those who sacrificed all. America owes you a debt it can never repay. And I want to thank my daddy for his example of serving and of loving America’s Soldiers deeply and with the honor they are due. That was his best gift. His scars created a legacy that lives on.