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MY WORD: Purple Heart marks our freedom

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Francis Regis McKinley Jr. is listed among those soldiers who fought for our freedom during the Vietnam War and who earned a Purple Heart… well, two to be exact, except both are for the same artillery attack in which he was wounded.

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He was embarrassed to be singled out for his service since others in the county were in Vietnam and even wounded. Plus he said, “That’s all in the past. You have to live for the now.”

Local residents may not recognize the name of Francis Regis McKinley Jr. However, if I mention Skip, his nickname, your mouth immediately begins to water with visions of the food that he and his wife, Teresa, have prepared at their bakery and deli on Main Street for 18 years.

It’s been 48 years since Skip shipped out to the Vietnam War as a 2nd lieutenant, having completed the ROTC program as a 23-year-old graduate of Dayton University in Ohio. His father, for whom he is named, served in New Guinea in World War II but never talked much about the war.

Perhaps that is why Skip accepted his assignment, hoped for the best and came home to live his life without any glory. It was Teresa, shortly before they married July 27, 1985, who found a shoebox in a closet and saw the distinguished medals. She remembers saying, “What are these doing in here? This is something you should be proud of!”

Skip smiled sheepishly as he explains why there are two Purple Heart medals and two air medals. The first set was handed to him nonchalantly after he returned from being hospitalized for his wounds. No ceremony, no remarks, no big deal. When he was transferred to another outfit, a Major there officially presented a set of medals to him. A black-and-white photo of that ceremony is included in the framed shadowbox Teresa had made when they married.

Thinking back to when he received his orders, “I was apprehensive. All we knew about the war was what was reported on the news. An American soldier thought someone else would be killed but it wouldn’t ever be them.”

He probably questioned that train of thought when he landed in Southeast Asia and heard gun and artillery fire immediately.  Temperatures were always in the 100s, it was humid and they suffered through four months of the rainy season. As an only child, he probably didn’t share his misery or concerns in his weekly letter home. Teresa said, “It (Skip being in Vietnam) tore his mother up. She always talked about how hard she prayed.”

Skip said his own faith was “with me more than I realized. Looking back, I had some interventions along the way. Plus, you know what they say:  There are no atheists in foxholes.”

Skip had to have faith in what was called his wingman… Jim Simons.

They met in July 1966 and are still friends today. They spent Memorial Day at the American Legion Post in Louisville even though Simons is facing terminal brain cancer. His Distinguished Cross medal is being reviewed for promotion to be a Congressional Medal of Honor. Skip hopes his friend lives to see it. Teresa said, “They call each other Troop. Jim repeatedly says, ‘Skip McKinley always had my back.’”

Skip’s job was a scout pilot, flying the helicopter along treetops and radioing back information when and where enemy was detected. “When I would spot some, they’d point a gun and shoot. Every once in a while, bullets would hit the helicopter but not me.”

He was asleep when he was hit.

It was near midnight September 22, 1966 when a round of small artillery hit the tent in which he was sleeping with two other guys. “It blew all three of us out! I went to get up and thought ‘Ok, this isn’t working’ and crawled over to a shelter we’d dug in the sand until a helicopter came to fly me to a hospital.”

He suffered multiple shrapnel wounds, “Pretty much all over… still carrying some around with me today,” he explained, pointing to specific dark areas on his leg, arm and cheek.

After a month, he returned to action. “The good thing about Vietnam was you knew you’d be there a year; morale was okay because we had an ending date. Obviously some didn’t make that.”

Teresa reflected on countless slides she has seen from her husband’s time in Vietnam, “It is overwhelming as he points to face after face and says over and over, ‘That guy didn’t make it.’”

One time, a Viet Cong wearing a US poncho and using a US M2 carbine rifle took aim at Skip’s helicopter. “I was 10 feet above the ground and he was aimed right at me but never fired. We found out later the rifle was jammed.”

After his tour of duty ended, he spent 22 years in sales. Since opening the caféin Shelbyville, Skip is seen driving all over town delivering orders… with a Purple Heart license plate for all to see.

He and Teresa observe patriotic holidays, always displaying an American flag. Skip might wear his Vietnam ball cap or service pin. Teresa said, “Once in a while, people stop and thank him.”

Skip said Fourth of July “probably means more to me than others. Today’s generation doesn’t realize what it took to have Fourth of July.”

Teresa added, “Freedom isn’t free.”

Skip agreed, “Some sure take it for granted.”

 

Duanne B. Puckett is a former editor of The Sentinel-News and

is retired from a career in journalism/public relations