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November/December Issue

red star bulletThe Veteran Departments : Featured Stories / Letters / President's Message / VVAF Report / Government Relations / Veterans Benefits Update / PTSD Substance Abuse Committee Report / AVVA Report / SHAD/Project 112 Task Force Report / Veterans Against Drugs Task Force Report / Constitution Committee Report / Convention Resolution Report / Healthcare Budget Reform / NamJam / South Korean Veterans / Arts of War / Book Review / Books / Membership Notes / Locator / Reunions / 4 Chaplains /

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BY JIM BELSHAW
Hank Kern, the infantry grunt and oldest brother, was the first to go. Drafted into the Army, he was 20 years old when he stepped ashore in Vietnam in 1966. Four brothers followed—Dan, Frank, John, and David. Another brother, Ricky, the youngest of the six boys in the family, volunteered for Vietnam but didn’t go. His brothers said Ricky didn’t like that one bit. With one in the Army, one in the Navy, three in the Marines—and at one point, three of them in Vietnam at the same time—the Vietnam War became a Kern family affair.

When they look back today, the context of so many years and tours of duty runs together, memories sometimes diverging on details. Asked about the Sullivan brothers, who died aboard a Navy ship in World War II, John Kern remembers the story. He said he signed a waiver about serving with family members. He’s certain of it.

Dave Kern says he didn’t know about the Sullivan brothers until after he returned from Vietnam.

Dan Kern isn’t sure about a waiver, but he thought if he volunteered for Vietnam, his brother, Hank, wouldn’t have to go. He was wrong.

They grew up in the Detroit area, six boys and three girls, their parents separated when they were young, their early years difficult and marked by rough edges. Their father and other relatives had served in the military in World War II and Korea, but there wasn’t any particular tradition around serving in the military. They joined up for almost as many reasons as there are brothers.

John dropped out of school at 16 and was in the Marines the next year. “Why the Marines? I was a naive kid from a not very stable home,” he said. “I actually don’t know why I did it, but I’m glad I did. I’m proud I served.”

Dave took JFK’s maxim to heart. “‘Ask not what your country can do for you,’ JFK said,” Dave recalled. “Everyone else was doing their tour of duty in Vietnam. I figured it was my time to go.”

Frank picked the Marines because they were the toughest.
Dan wanted the Marines, too, but an uncle, taking responsibility for his nephew’s safety, steered him into the Navy.

Eldest brother Hank went in the Army, an uncheerful draftee.
“I was the only one drafted, and I wasn’t happy about it,” he said. “But once you’re in there and you hook up with the guys you train with, you get so close to them, you just want to do your part and survive.”

So Hank shipped out, headed for moments that “make time stand still,” a time and place that made him think, “This is not like the movies at all. It was more frightening than I can describe.” He talks in wonder of the first day, traveling in a convoy that stopped to meet a line of trucks headed in the opposite direction. The old-timers asked the new guys how many were in the group. Told it was a whole division, an old-timer told them not that many would be going back home.

Hank remembers being pinned down by automatic weapons fire and being so terrified he started shaking and couldn’t stop. He was not the praying kind at the time, but he prayed anyway. Today, he is in his twenty-seventh year as a Christian minister. Fortunately, his last three months in Vietnam were considerably more relaxed than the first nine.

“I was assigned to a carpenter detail,” he said. “I heard it was going to be a long operation, and the rumor was they were going to keep guys who worked hard on it. I thought, ‘Well, that’s me. I’m a hard worker.’ I spent my last three months working on that carpentry detail.”

Dan, John, and Frank soon followed to Vietnam, John and Frank having joined the Marines within a month of each other but not knowing it until they stumbled upon one another in boot camp. John lived in Michigan at the time of his enlistment, but Frank had moved to California to be with his father. The family wasn’t in the habit of writing letters, and the boys didn’t know their brothers’ plans.

Frank says John joined first, about a month ahead of him. John’s not so certain.
“I can’t say for sure who joined the Marine Corps first, me or Frank,” John said. “After I’d been in boot camp awhile, a D.I. said, ‘Do you have a brother named Frank?’ We got together for a short time after that. The rest of my time in boot camp the D.I. was asking why I couldn’t be as squared away as my brother.”

Frank went to Vietnam first. When John arrived, he knew Frank was in-country some place but didn’t know where—and certainly never realized he was just down the road in the Dong Ha area.

But Frank didn’t know John was in Vietnam until the day he was riding in the back of an open truck in a convoy while another convoy came from the opposite direction. John was the first to see who was coming toward him.

“We got closer to where you could see the guys, and all of a sudden I saw it was my brother Frank,” John said. “I hollered to the driver to stop, and I jumped off.”
They managed to spend some time together, and later it was Dan’s turn to hook up with each brother, though today he’s not sure which one was first.

“Frank was the one I saw first,” Dan said, and then reconsidered. “Well, you know—I’m not sure which one it was.”

What everyone is sure of is that Frank went from Dong Ha to Danang to see Dan, and Dan went up a river from Danang to Dong Ha to see John at his 155mm artillery unit. Dan said he fed Frank well on Navy food in Danang, a much higher quality chow than Frank was accustomed to in the Marines. John marveled at the risk Dan took coming up the river to visit him.

“Danny took a real chance doing that because any kind of ambush could be set up along the river,” he said.

Frank and John kept in touch in Dong Ha, checking up on one another when their units were hit. Periodically, John, who had trained as a metal worker, was pressed into artillery duty while visiting Frank at the 155 unit.

“There were times when Johnny was up there when we were hit,” Frank said. “I had him working on the one-five-five with me returning fire to the enemy. I had him cleaning rounds, setting fuses, humping rounds—anything but sitting in a foxhole.”
The Kern brothers had something of a knack for running into home-towners, related or not. Dave came in from a night ambush once and met a Roseville, Michigan, neighbor on the way in. He ran across a Marine who lived six blocks from his home in Roseville and another who lived four blocks away. Hank saw a guy cleaning an M-16 once, looked closer, and recognized him. They’d been in the first grade together; in a PX the guy behind him had been in the eighth grade with him; and right across the road a cousin turned up.

Until Dave went to Vietnam, the Kern family had escaped the war relatively unscathed. No one had been wounded, though Frank had split his skull open when his unit was taking fire. While running for a foxhole, he ran headlong into the barrel of a 155mm howitzer.

“It knocked me out,” he said. “They sewed me up and I went on R&R to Taipei. I had an excellent time there. I didn’t think I’d ever come back to the United States the way things were going.”

Frank is now 100 percent disabled. He has a constant, loud ringing in his ears, the result of his time in near proximity to the big guns. He said the ringing began in 1968, and he has a 30 percent hearing loss in both ears.

“I suffer every day with that sound,” he said. “It goes up and down and never ends. It’s stayed the same sound in my head all these years.”

Shortly after Hank became the first Kern to go to Vietnam, he sent a map of the country back home. The family put the map up on a wall and began collecting all the information they could find about Vietnam.

“He was there and he was my brother, but it was just a spot on the map,” Dave, the last to go, said. “It wasn’t real until I was there, and combat wasn’t real until I was in it, and getting shot wasn’t real until I got shot.”

In a night battle, Dave was wounded by small arms fire. There was a flash of light and a severe pain in his back.

“I thought I must have been shot in my back,” he said. “Then a flare went up in the distance, and there was enough light for me to see. I saw a hole in my right leg big enough to put a grapefruit through.”

Back home in Detroit, the news of Dave’s wounding was taken hard, especially by the boys’ mother, who had set up a Christmas tree and kept it up until all of her boys returned home safely. Even today, Dan has difficulty talking about the day they were notified of Dave’s wounds. He said it was a “nightmare” for her.
John became angry, entertaining thoughts of re-enlisting to seek revenge; Hank remembers being upset about all the losses.

“There were three of us who were close in Michigan,” he said. “Two didn’t make it back. The mother of one of them called me one day, and I didn’t know what to say to her. I was bitter when I came back from Vietnam, and I was angry when Dave was wounded.”

John sought treatment for PTSD at the Chicago VA hospital, a decision he says has been “really beneficial.” Dave struggles with it as well, but says having his brothers available is always a help.

“Having brothers who were in the same predicament I was in almost always helped me cope with PTSD,” Dave said. “It was always an open case for us to talk. We could talk to each other. I know a lot of guys came home, and they didn’t have anybody who could relate to it, and they shelled up. My brothers could talk to one another, and we could help each other.”

Hank Kern speaks of those brothers with admiration.

“I was so proud that all my brothers had volunteered to be in the service,” he said. “They had all volunteered for combat just thinking about one another. I’m just so thankful we all got out of there alive. I’m really proud of these guys.”

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