Newport vet finds new purpose decades after war
It has been nearly five decades since Richard Jenkins left the war torn jungles of Vietnam. As a young man drafted into a war where one out of every seven soldiers was African American, fighting for his country was both his duty and an opportunity to prove himself.
As a private first class in the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Army Division, the 71-year-old Newport resident said the sights and sounds of war, however horrific, have shaped who he is today.
Reminiscing recently about his one year, 11 months and 29 days as a soldier in the United States Army, Jenkins, a Purple Heart recipient, said his strong religious beliefs and devoted family helped give him a new life after coming home from war.
From Kansas City to the front lines
Growing up in a rough neighborhood in Kansas City, Kan., during the early 1940s, Jenkins said he always knew he wanted something more. Raised by his father and stepmother in a racially segregated area of town, Jenkins left home at a young age and settled in the Twin Cities.
He began taking classes the University of Minnesota with the intention of studying health care administration. But when the rising cost of tuition became too much for him to afford, he had to drop out. And on April 24, 1964, nearly a decade into the Vietnam War, Uncle Sam knocked on his door.
“I was drafted, of course,” he said. “I was sent down to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and then did a special training session for six weeks. But instead of coming home they sent me to Fort Polk in Louisiana.”
Jenkins had just married his wife, Cecelia, and said after being sent to Fort Polk he contemplated going AWOL, partly because he missed his wife and also because he knew the Army was looking for soldiers to send to Vietnam.
“I knew that it would just be a matter of time until I was sent over,” he said.
After completing advanced infantry training, Jenkins was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado as a stockade guard at the jail. He oversaw prisoners on off-campus work duty, a task he said he did not particularly enjoy.
Thinking he would spend the rest of his enlistment in Colorado, Jenkins said he was surprised when he was called to do more special training at Fort Riley in his home state of Kansas. After three weeks, he flew to San Francisco for a final exam and then boarded a ship bound for Vietnam.
“We loaded up and spent around 28 days at sea,” he described. “We had a lot of people getting sea sick. When we were in the South China Sea, we ran into a tropical storm that hit us big time. I was laughing because everyone was getting sick and I had to tell them ‘It’s all in your head.’ And then I did the same thing. You couldn’t hold anything down. It was bad.”
Little did Jenkins know, but the water would be the least of his worries. Landing on the beach of the small Vietnamese town of Phouc Vinh, a village that bordered Cambodia, Jenkins said he can still remember how hot it was and the sight of green body bags lining the shore.
"The whole region was so alien to me," he said. "As the point-man for the search and destroy missions we carried out, it was kill or be killed."
'War is vicious'
During the mid-1960s, while the Vietnam War was raging across the ocean, on American soil the struggle for civil rights was heating up. As the country's first racially integrated conflict, segregation and discrimination was not absent from the front lines of combat. But despite political and cultural differences, Jenkins said there was still a job to do.
"We walked the jungle in formations very sensitive to the fact that traps were set everywhere," he said.
Jenkins described several encounters with punji pits which were capable of immobilizing units in an instant. The Viet Cong Army would dig pits several feet deep and drive spikes or carved sticks into the ground. The pit was camouflaged and when a soldier stepped into the trap, it was nearly impossible to escape.
"Often the Viet Cong would lace the spikes with poison," he said. "War is vicious. Everyone has this perception that it's a John Wayne kind of thing but it's not. You sacrifice a lot."
While on routine patrol during his deployment, Jenkins said he was involved in an incident where intuition and speaking up helped save his life.
His squad came across a trap which he had a gut feeling was equipped with explosives. Unsure of what the danger level was, Jenkins refused to intentionally walk into harm's way.
"If anyone ever tells you that they weren't scared, they were lying," he said. "I told my sergeant that I didn't want to go near the trap because I could smell death. Something just didn't feel right. I can remember one guy, who had a very muscular build, said we were just scared and that he'd go in. He walked out there and not long after we heard a loud boom."
Jenkins' comrade lost his legs and two days later died from his injuries.
"Every day we had close calls."
The price of a Purple Heart
When people learn that Jenkins is a recipient of the the Purple Heart, an award for military merit often given posthumously, he is offered congratulatory sentiments. While it is a medal he carries with honor, Jenkins jokingly said he wonders why people congratulate him for not moving out of the way fast enough.
"Someone at the grocery store one time said 'Congratulations on winning the Purple Heart.' I laughed, you don't win this," he said. "I was in the wrong place and didn't get out of the way in time."
Forty-eight years to the day, on Nov. 6, 1965, Jenkins and his unit were on regular patrol. Six months into his deployment, the soldiers came across a series of armed traps that the Viet Cong Army set in the ground and Jenkins was told to fire.
"I fired my grenade launcher at (the trap) and the next thing I saw was an explosion," he said. "Shrapnel came flying back at me and was imbedded into my left thigh."
What the Vietnamese lacked in air power, they made up for in ground attacks. Being in a constant state of alertness helped Jenkins prepare for shooting into the trap, but he said he will never forget the excruciating pain of being impaled with shrapnel.
"I was airlifted to a field hospital somewhere in the general area," he said. "I can't quite remember where in Vietnam we were at at this point."
Medics quickly worked to removal the shrapnel before he was sent to Saigon, present day Ho Chi Minh City, for a two-week recovery period.
"At this point I'm thinking to myself, 'OK, you survived and now you get to go home,'" he said. "But I was told I was going back in and that I had to continue the search and destroy missions."
With only a few months left of his deployment, Jenkins reluctantly rejoined his brothers at the front lines. Throughout the course of his time in Vietnam, he witnessed the deaths of 29 of his comrades.
"With a few weeks left, they were trying to get me to re-up but I wasn't hearing any of that," he said. "I had a sixth sense that this wasn't where I should be. I was feeling resentment and anger and sadness for all that I has witnessed while I was overseas that I was ready to go home and try to rebuild."
In April 1965, Jenkins and his unit, many of whom did not originally deploy with him, boarded an Army helicopter bound for home.
"Some helicopters when they begin to fly out get shot down," he remembered. "So there were other planes surrounding us as we took off. But after five minutes up in the air we all just let out a loud yell and we're screaming, 'We made it.'
"I will never forget the song we all started signing," he said.
It was The Rolling Stones' newest hit, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
"It was an emotional time for all of us," he said. "I remember tears welling up in my eyes. I could breathe again. But I kept wondering why God brought me back and not some of my friends. He didn't have to bring me back. And I didn't appreciate that for many, many years after the war ended."
Discovering hope after turmoil
"Coming back from the Vietnam War was not like the homecoming it is today,” Jenkins said. “When vets from World War II came back there were parades and fanfare. We were told not to wear our uniforms on the plane for fear of backlash.”
Amid the combat overseas, the civil rights movement coupled with the myriad of anti-war demonstrations made returning home a different kind of battle for Jenkins.
“We were told that anti-war protesters would spit on us when we came back,” he explained. “Luckily that never happened to me. But I came back with a lot of anger.”
Anger toward the war that Jenkins said did not accomplish what he thought it would, resentment toward being put at the front lines and a deep-rooted sense of survivor’s guilt hindered his healing.
“Why me?” he asked. “Why did God choose to bring me back?”
For many years, Jenkins struggled with alcoholism and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and trying to assimilate back into civilian life was proving more difficult than he imagined.
“My wife and my kids put up a lot with me after I came back from Vietnam,” he said. “I can still remember my wife praying and saying “Lord, hurry up and change him.’”
To this day, Jenkins said the sounds of an engine firing up, a plane or helicopter flying overhead and the smell of diesel fuel brings him back to the jungles of Vietnam.
Despite still living with war triggers, he was able to get back on his feet which he credited to his unwavering religious beliefs.
“I didn’t realize I had a purpose until after I got into my 40s and 50s,” he said. “My purpose was to help others.”
In 1983, after years of soul searching and coming to terms with his own mortality, Jenkins became an ordained Baptist minister and began preaching in prison systems across Minnesota. In an attempt to counsel the growing number of military veterans who find themselves in jail, Jenkins said he brings his message of hope and understanding.
“I know the mindset of a veteran,” he said. “I know there is a lot of anger inside. You’re trained to kill, it’s a psychological thing. I understand that. That’s why it’s important for me to let them know that it takes time and patience to get through these changes.”
Jenkins also remained active in the Purple Heart community and served as the Minnesota Commander for the Military Order of the Purple Heart in 2008 and 2009.
In 2010, he became a National Chaplain for the military order.
Throughout the years, Jenkins has taken his ministry to hundreds of incarcerated Vietnam veterans, counseled those chemically dependent, and shares his message through a cable television show.
Jenkins is currently the adjutant for the military order and helps veterans pay their bills, get the help they need and produces the monthly newsletter.
“I’m glad I ended up here,” Jenkins said of living in his quiet neighborhood in Newport. “I have prospered beyond my wildest imagination. But because I still have brothers who did not and are still in that quagmire, I’m going to make every attempt to continue to help.
“The adversities that we encountered in Vietnam and back at home did serve a purpose,” he explained. “While it took me a while to realize what that purpose was, it was all part of a process. Now I am comfortable with who I am and I don’t have to struggle to try and prove myself. I want to spread the message that there is a better plan for everyone, no matter what the circumstances may be.”
The Military Order of the Purple Heart is open to all wounded combat veterans.
For more information about the order, visit the website: http://www.purpleheart.org/