FOREST CITY — Larry Kearney had worked at Winnebago Industries for less than a year when he received an Army draft letter.
It was March 1969. At 19, he figured it was his excuse to exit from the company.
Even if he came back from Vietnam, he figured he would find another job. Any career he might have had there was over before it had a chance to begin.
“Head of personnel came to me and said, ‘Sign this leave of absence form,’” said Kearney, 66.
“And I did,” he said. “I was a smart-ass kid and I thought, ‘I’ll never come back here.’”
But he went back to work upon his return. And, 45 years later, as head of maintenance, he is Winnebago’s longest tenured employee.
Rather than fight an inevitable path to Vietnam, he reported for basic training 13 days later in Fort Polk, Louisiana.
He said, “Let’s suck this up.”
At Fort Polk he trained for artillery, which became obsolete the moment he went to Vietnam in March 1970.
“They handed me a rifle and put me in the bush,” he said.
As part of the First Cavalry Division, he was stationed near Song Be by the Cambodian border.
“I’m in infantry,” he said. “I did not have that much training in maps and compasses.
“That was on-the-job training,” he said. “I was out of my realm at that time, but a couple of the other sergeants helped.
“You learn quick,” he said.
He celebrated his 21 birthday expecting guard duty.
“I turned 21 in the bush,” he said. A few buddies slipped him a few beers and worked his patrol shift that night.
“That was nice of them,” he said. “I would have done that for them, too.”
In July, he was less than three miles from a fire base in Vietnam near the Cambodian border when his patrol came under attack.
“We were in a bad spot,” he said. “A rocket came in and I think most of the energy got absorbed in the hill.”
The force of the blast “knocked me out,” he said. “I was peaceful and a few seconds later, I wasn’t.”
Bullets were flying over his head.
“I’m looking just above my head. It looked like ants above my head,” he said. “I grabbed my radio buddy and we slid down the hill.”
He was wounded with shrapnel in the chest and later received medals including a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
“I was the last one on that medevac chopper,” he said. “I ended up in the helicopter and I was the least hurt of anyone.”
“If you are a veteran and you have been in combat, war changes you,” he said. “After that, I decided I wasn’t going to be close to anybody.
“I tried to stay upbeat. I don’t dwell on the things the have happened. You want to reflect on it and put it aside and get busy again,” he said.