Profile: Garth McKinney talks about life after Vietnam

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These photos were taken by Garth McKinney when he was serving in Vietnam, except for the last one, which is a photo of him.


by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle, 11-6-2013

GLOVER — The centennial for the start of World War One — the war to end all wars — is just around the corner.  For much of the world, the war began in the summer of 1914 and ended on November 11, 1918 — the year after the United States entered the conflict that, by some accounts, took roughly 35 million lives.  Given that scale of horrific carnage, small wonder it had to be elevated and commemorated as the war that would end all others.

Next Monday is Armistice or Veterans Day.  When created in 1919 it intended to pay homage to the soldiers who were killed in what became known as the “Great War.”  Its observation has since extended far beyond that war to include the military causalities that mount every day and hold little promise of ever ending.

As remarkable as it may seem, society is just beginning to learn how deep the wounds can go for any soldier who has fought in and survived any war.  For beyond paying tribute to those soldiers who were killed, Armistice Day is also the day that drives home the realization that the soldiers who made it back, the ones who survived, are the ones who have to live with the memories of war.

“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it,” observed General Robert E. Lee after his troops shot down wave after wave of attacking Union soldiers during the assault on Mayre’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.

Next to the Civil War, no other war in American history was as divisive as the Vietnam War.  And arguably no other war pushed veterans so far out on the edge that they begin to question the value of their service and the sacrifices they made.

correction mckinneyNot that he would make much ado about it — “There were a lot more guys who did a lot more than I did” — but Garth McKinney of Glover is a survivor of that war and the peace that followed.

“I have friends whose names are on that wall,” he says, speaking of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington that has come to change the way the country honors its war dead.

But he has also done something more than survive.  Since his retirement, Mr. McKinney has become increasingly active in public service.  As a musician, he plays at senior meal sites and nursing homes, and occasionally he shows up in public performance as an Elvis impersonator, singing the old favorites like “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Hound Dog.”

“The more I do, the better I feel about myself,” he says, underscoring his very private reasons for becoming publicly involved in the community.

It’s long ways from the day he returned home as a Vietnam veteran.

Mr. McKinney served as a helicopter crew chief during the early years of the Vietnam War, 1965-1966.  He was the only mechanic in a three-member crew that delivered fuel and ammo to jungle outposts, sometimes in “Indian Territory,” and brought back the wounded and sometimes the dead. The outfit’s nickname was the Pony Express, and their motto was:  “You call, we haul,” he says.

Proud of his service to the country, he was unprepared for the controversy and the hostility that greeted him upon his return.  Still dressed in uniform he boarded a bus in Boston and found a seat next to a young woman.  Initially friendly, she asked where he had been.  As soon as he told her, she wanted nothing more to do with him.

“So,” he recalls her saying.  “You’re one of them.”

“One of them what?” he recalls thinking.

He had no idea what she was talking about, but he found out soon enough while watching television news at his mother’s house.  He might have taken public criticism of the war in stride had his mother not come out and told him one night over supper that she no longer knew who he was.

At the time, he didn’t believe or see how he had changed, but it caught up with him eventually.

One of the images he retains from the war is the sight of two dead marines lying next to him in the back of the helicopter.  He read their names from the tags on the body bags, and turned his thoughts to something else.  He says he didn’t think much about it at the time, but the image keeps coming back.

Mr. McKinney says he became something of a loner over the years.  He and his wife separated after seven years of marriage.  Restless and impatient, he preferred his own company to anyone else.  He kept tight, though, with the men he served with in Vietnam, attending reunions.

“I’ve lived an experience very few people live in life,” he says,” speaking of his tour of duty in Vietnam.  “I have no regrets.”  He says the military taught him some of life’s toughest lessons, such as taking care of problems as soon as they arrive.

“I learned the hard way,” he says.  “If you don’t follow orders, things don’t get done.

“If you’re going to be in charge, be in charge.  You’re in it to win it.”

Mr. McKinney says he joined the Air Force before the Army could get him.  For someone who doesn’t know what to do with his life, he believes that a two-year tour in the service is the “best test for manhood.”

As a guitar player and singer who performed with his brother and father, Mr. McKinney harbored another, more personal, ambition.

“I always wanted to see what it would be like,” he says speaking of impersonating Elvis.

He went on the Internet, bought an Elvis outfit — the pants, the wig, “the whole bit,” he says — and began to perform to enthusiastic crowds at senior centers and nursing homes like Maple Lane in Barton.  There are a lot of fans in the crowd from the fifties, and many want to squeeze or touch him, without caring that the Elvis before them was an impersonator.

“We have a lot of fun,” he says.

Mr. McKinney works at putting on a good show.  He studies Elvis’ moves from watching old clips, and picks and chooses the times when he dons the wig.

“I don’t want to wear out the image,” he says.

On Veterans or Armistice Day, Mr. McKinney plans to honor those soldiers who came before him and paid the ultimate price.  As far as volunteering in the community goes, he says he’s squaring a debt.

“Life’s been good to me, I’m just trying to give back.”

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