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Troubled Hero

A Medal of Honor, Vietnam, and the War at Home

Randy K. Mills

Publication Year: 2006

Born in rural Illinois, Ken Kays was a country boy who flunked out of college and wound up serving as a medic in the Vietnam War. On May 7, 1970, after only 17 days in Vietnam and one day after joining a new platoon, the young medic found himself in a ferocious battle. As a conscientious objector, Kays did not carry any weapons, but his actions during that engagement would earn him the Congressional Medal of Honor. Yet Kays' valor came during just another unheralded fire fight near the end of a long and seemingly fruitless war. He returned home and, with other vets, struggled to reconcile his anti-war beliefs with what he and others had done in Vietnam. This dramatic and tragic story is a timely reminder of the price of war and the fragile comforts of peace.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Troubled Hero

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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

Many good people helped in the production of this book. I wish to thank Angie Carlen for her dedication in reading and typing through several drafts of the book, as well as her timely editorial suggestions. Thanks go also to Nora Nixon for her excellent transcribing of interviews. I am also grateful for help from the following people: Gib Rossetter, Steve “Greek” Avgerinos, Dick Doyle, John Smith, Mike...

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Introduction: I’d Give My Immortal Soul for That Medal

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pp. xiii-xviii

In many ways the story of 101st Airborne medic Kenneth M. Kays captures a great portion of the paradoxes and ironies of our nation’s long travail in Vietnam. Kays grew up in the conservative town of Fairfield, Illinois. As he moved into adolescence, the free-spirited Kays found his southern Illinois community especially restrictive, and his actions and his unique way of looking at things often provoked intolerance. One high school classmate...

Part I

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pp. 1-2

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1. Down in Egypt

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pp. 3-12

If there existed a definitive moment of birth for Kenny Kays’ generation, perhaps it was the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. At the age of forty-two, Kennedy was the youngest man ever elected president and the first American president born in the twentieth century. Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered on a cloudless and cold January day in 1961, captivated the nation’s imagination and captured the hope and expectations of the...

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2. Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

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pp. 13-27

The big news in Wayne County in the late forties revolved around two events. The first concerned the slipping grip of the Shelton gang on the community. The brothers had made many enemies through the years and would now reap a bitter and deadly harvest. On 24 May 1949, Big Earl Shelton was seriously wounded by one of three shots fired through...

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3. A Party School

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pp. 28-37

The college experience often occurs as a defining event in the lives of American youth. This was perhaps even more so in the middle and late sixties for rural and small-town kids who came to large, state-supported universities. Kenny Kays’ sojourn at Southern Illinois University certainly had much to do with his own later decisions and actions regarding the war...

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4. I Felt I Was Born That Weekend

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pp. 38-47

The year 1968–69 was an extraordinarily difficult year on campuses all across the nation. Graduation ceremonies across the country during the late spring of 1969 continued to reflect the ongoing tensions and struggles found on campuses nationwide. Commencement speakers often found themselves heckled or challenged by the graduates, while peace signs adorned the tops of numerous mortarboards. Some graduating students...

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5. Maybe I Can Help Somebody

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pp. 48-56

In late summer of 1969, David Steiner, Joe Keoughan, and other friends of Ken Kays returned to their respective colleges. Meanwhile, Kays sat at home as national and world events continued to unfold and fashion his destiny. At first the news about the war and the draft seemed hopeful. Draft boards everywhere had begun to announce they would be cutting back...

Part II

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pp. 57-58

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6. My Life Changed Forever

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pp. 59-79

While Kenny Kays moved in fits and starts toward his unique destiny in Vietnam, a handful of other young American men who along with Kays would soon come to endure that hellish night on Fire Support Base Maureen found themselves on an unexpected journey, the destination of which remained painfully unclear. Their home cultures were vastly different, but the one thing they shared was the shadow of World War II. The so-called...

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7. They Stood Alone

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pp. 80-114

Without doubt there were many difficult places and environments where U.S. troops endured combat in Vietnam. One might easily argue, however, that the arena where the 101st Airborne fought from 1968 to 1971 was one of the most hostile and difficult. Given the added political circumstances the 101st faced after 1969, fighting there verged on the unbearable. The...

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8. Just a Damn Piece of Metal

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pp. 115-132

On 11 May 1970, the Wayne County Press carried a short front-page article titled “Fairfield Boy, Kenneth Kays, loses leg in Vietnam battle.” The piece noted the young man had been in combat “for no more than a week,” but said nothing about the young man’s heroic actions.1 Returning from Vietnam, the former medic traveled to Fitzsimmons General Hospital in...

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9. Back in the World

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pp. 133-142

A few years after Kenneth Kays’ lonely death, some of his former high school classmates began to talk of doing something to honor their friend. Together, the group raised enough money to purchase a small but attractive brass plaque and place it on the brick archway that graced the courthouse square. But the renewed interest in Kays did not occur without controversy. The largest newspaper in the...

Appendix A

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pp. 143-144

Appendix B

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pp. 145-146

Appendix C

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pp. 147-148

Appendix D

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pp. 149-150


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pp. 151-158

Note on Sources

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pp. 159-160


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pp. 161-162


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pp. 163-169

E-ISBN-13: 9780253112439
E-ISBN-10: 0253112435
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253347954

Page Count: 192
Illustrations: 18 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2006