NORA SPRINGS — Army Staff Sgt. Jerry Kelley’s fiancee met him at the airport with a change of civilian clothes when he flew home from Vietnam in 1969.
Kelley, of Nora Springs, changed in the airport bathroom, threw his Army uniform in the garbage and walked out the door.
At the time he would never have imagined going back to Vietnam, but five years ago that’s exactly what he did.
He’s been there every year since.
“I always wanted to go back, because I thought it was … I liked the country myself,” Kelley explained. “A lot of these guys are like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with that guy?’ But, I had the opportunity to go back.”
Drafted into the Army in 1967, Kelley did basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Advanced training was in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
He went to non-commissioned officer school and arrived in South Vietnam in August 1968 as a sergeant in B Troop in the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Americal Division.
A commander of an armored personnel carrier, Kelley rode on top of the vehicle issuing commands to the driver and two gunners as they rolled along wood lines and through the rice paddies.
They had some close calls as they went on search-and-destroy missions based out of Firebase Hawk Hill near Tam Ky, Vietnam.
His carrier hit two land mines and was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG.
Although the land mines were not direct hits, each triggered blasts that blew Kelley off the vehicle and the carrier off its track.
The RPG didn’t detonate, but left a fist-sized dent next to the Snoopy decal on the side of the personnel carrier.
“We didn’t know it was a dud until the next morning (when) it was laying on the ground,” Kelley said. “We were real fortunate nobody got killed.”
Kelley was injured later that night.
“The same night that that RPG rocket hit us, all this artillery was coming at us – rockets coming at us,” Kelley said. “Most of us got shrapnel in several places.”
He was eventually transferred to headquarters troop, whose commander oversaw the activities of the A, B and C troops. Kelley’s responsibilities at headquarters included keeping an eye on the Chinese man who served as the unit’s interpreter.
That could be an adventure.
“He could speak difference languages so they needed him,” Kelley said. “So, when he went to town, I had to go with him at night, too. I was scared.”
When asked to participate in the Globe’s series, Kelley wasn’t sure whether he wanted to share his story.
He eventually decided it was something he wanted to do. His wife, Connie, who met him at the airport in 1969, sat in on the interview.
Kelley figures that a lot of people probably don’t know he is a Vietnam veteran. It’s not something he’s talked about much, even to his sons.
“There’s a lot of veterans out there that people don’t know are Vietnam veterans,” Kelley said.
Many were recognized for the first time at Operation LZ, a large welcome-back event for Vietnam veterans held last year in Forest City.
Kelley’s convinced there’s more.
He hopes they’ll be able to step forward and get recognition for their service.