On November 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in heroism of those who died in the county’s service.”
Today the holiday of remembrance, more commonly known as Veteran’s day, represents the reflections of sacrifice President Wilson spoke of. As Veteran’s day approaches, the ceremonies are planned for Millersville University to reflect and give gratitude to all soldiers who have given the ultimate sacrifice of life and military service. This year’s keynote speaker is Kenneth Leland, who served in Vietnam during 1966-1967.
Leland, a soft-spoken southerner, has been speaking for 16 years about his experience in Vietnam and after. As the son of a World War II veteran who served in Patton’s Third Army, the military was an obvious career choice. Enlisting in the United States Marine Corps in 1961, Leland was discharged in 1965.
After being discharged, he began working for the state of Florida. Nine months into civilian life, Leland received a letter from the Department of the Navy asking for volunteers to go to Vietnam. Leland recalls that his decision to reenlist was unpopular with his family and friends but his country needed him, so he enlisted because, “that’s what marines do.”
On his way to Vietnam, Leland had the unique experience of seeing Iwo Jima, the vital island captured by WWII marines. Referring back to a boot camp practice of watching John Wayne’s, “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” the film’s visualization of US marines raising the American banner on the island created a backdrop for his experience.
“It was just amazing to look at that little sandy island, that looked like a nice beach on one end and as you went east it turned into a large volcano. It looked like huge Swiss cheese it had so many holes in it. To see where the flag was raised, and where over 7,000 marines died in one battle was mind boggling,” said Leland.
When he arrived in Vietnam, he admits that his training in the Marine Corps couldn’t have prepared him for what he was about to endure. One person that helped him along the way was a sergeant who had served four months already and his advice was vital to the 22-year-old Leland.
Receiving mail helped to ease the stress of combat, but it was scarce. Deployed in the mountainous region along the demilitarized zone, “you could barely get a helicopter in to take out your wounded and dead much less the mail,” according to Leland.
Leland was challenged by personal attributes, which led to his involvement in dangerous combat scenarios. Leland was sometimes called upon to be a tunnel rat due to his height, a self-described “5-foot 6 inches on a good day.” For Leland those experiences have left their scar, still breaking his sleep in the middle of the night awaking, “gasping for air,” he said.
“There’s an old saying that comes out of the Vietnam War. There’s no such thing as an unwounded veteran,” said Leland. It’s the “certain days, certain times, certain smells, certain places, certain sounds,” that never leave you. It has “affected me throughout the years,” added Leland.
Experiences with Post Traumatic Stress drive him to speak, but more importantly it’s his own experiences when returning stateside that lights the fire to help today’s veterans. A member of the Vietnam Veterans of America for the last 16 years, Leland has striven to help current servicemen and veterans both overseas and upon their arrival home.
“When I came back there were no bands playing patriotic music, no banners saying welcome home. No one to shake my hand and say thank you for your service,” said Leland. “The people that sent us there turned there back on us, and we’re determined not to let that happen to these kids.”