BY JOHN M. JONES JR.
Ken Earl was clearly feeling some strong emotions late Thursday afternoon when he accepted from U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, of Johnson City, a handshake and a small black box containing a Bronze medallion suspended beneath an orange-and-blue ribbon: an Air Medal he earned 42 years ago during the Vietnam War, but never received.
Not until Thursday.
Husky, bearded, and good-natured, Ken Earl, 70, is one of Greeneville's friendliest, busiest retired volunteers these days. Always quick with a smile. A man who takes a lot of kidding from his friends, and gives out plenty of his own.
Four years ago, he was less relaxed because he was focused on his position as Greeneville Water Superintendent, a position he held for almost 21 years before retiring in November 2008.
Go back 42 years, though, to the spring of 1970, and the easygoing, relaxed former Water Department administrator had a very different focus.
That spring, and for the next 12 months, his full attention was on doing the best possible job as a combat helicopter pilot with U.S. Army forces in South Vietnam, and, if possible, staying alive.
It was a period of his life, Earl recalled Thursday in an interview, when he was seriously considering making the Army a career.
After six years as an enlisted man, including 14 months as a Drill Sergeant at Fort Bliss in Texas -- one of his favorite Army assignments, he says -- he had entered Officer Candidate School, earned his commission as a second lieutenant, and taken helicopter flight training.
He arrived in South Vietnam on May 3, 1970, during the years when the war was at a high level of intensity. Almost immediately, he found himself in combat roles.
He recalled Thursday in an interview that the Army routine for new helicopter pilots arriving in the combat zone was to have a couple of orientation flights with another pilot, to get used to what he would be doing while he was in Vietnam.
But that wasn't quite the way things worked out.
On his first orientation flight, his helicopter was diverted to take part in supporting troops in an Air Assault. The next day the same thing happened.
By the end of his fourth day in Vietnam, he had already logged more than 25 combat flying hours -- and had been recommended for his first Air Medal.
It would be the first of many for which he would be recommended during the next 12 months.
TWO KINDS OF HELICOPTERS
At first he flew big Chinook helicopters, the kind used to fly troops into battle in Vietnam, or bring large loads of supplies to troops in the field.
Later, he was switched to the OH58 helicopter, which was smaller and often used for flying reconnaissance missions.
He remained on duty in Vietnam from May 3, 1970, until April 7, 1971.
During that time, he logged 25 hours supporting troops in Air Assaults, 50 hours of Close Support for troops in combat, and 100 hours of miscellaneous assignments such as ferrying mail or rations to troops in the field.
By the end of his tour of duty there, he had been recommended for a number of Air Medals and had attained the rank of captain.
BACKGROUND OF AIR MEDAL
According to U.S. Army literature, the Air Medal was created in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to honor "any person who, while serving in any capacity in or with the armed forces of the United States, shall have distinguished himself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.
Awards may be made to recognize single acts of merit or heroism or for meritorious service."
The medal is a Bronze compass rose "charged with an eagle volant carrying two lightning flashes in its talons. A fleur-de-lis at the top point holds the suspension ring.
When a member of the armed forces is recommended and approved for more than one Air Medal, the number appears on the actual decoration.
In Earl's case, the number is 9.
CITATION ON EARL'S MEDAL
The citation on his medal reads, in part:
"...This is to certify that the President of the United States of America, authorized by Executive Order, 11 May 1942, has awarded The Air Medal with numeral '9' to Captain Kenneth G. Earl, United States Army, for distinguishing himself by meritorious achievement while participating in sustained aerial flight in support of combat ground forces in the Republic of Vietnam.
"During the period from 3 May 1970 to 7 April 1971, he actively participated in aerial missions over hostile territory in support of operations against Communist aggression. During all of these flights, he displayed the highest order of air discipline and acted in accordance with the best traditions of the service.
"By his determination to accomplish his mission, in spite of the hazards inherent in repeated aerial flights over hostile territory, and by his outstanding degree of professionalism and devotion to duty, he has brought credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army."
The citation is signed by Jason L. Evans, The Adjutant General, and John M. McHugh, Secretary of the Army.
COMMENDED BY ROE ALSO
The medal, with the citation, was presented to Earl late Thursday afternoon by Roe in the conference room of The Greeneville Sun, in a brief though formal ceremony attended by two members of Roe's staff and several members of the news staff of the newspaper.
Roe, an Army veteran with service in South Korea, added his own commendation to Earl for his service.
Earl himself seemed slightly embarrassed by the attention, though pleased to receive the Air Medal after so many years, which he said was supposed to have been presented at his next duty station after Vietnam, but never was.
PASSING IT ON
In an interview after the ceremony, he said that for years he took no action about the medal.
But several months ago he decided to contact Roe to see if it would still be possible to receive the honor for which he had been recommended decades earlier.
Roe's staff went to work on the request, and the ceremony Thursday was the result.
Earl expressed his appreciation to the congressman and his staff for their assistance.
Asked how he decided to take action to receive the Air Medal after more than 40 years, he replied that he had two sons and a daughter, and wanted to be able to pass it on to them.
"I think being able to pass it on is the main thing," he summed up.