08/08/14 — Banquet honors county's Purple Heart recipients

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Banquet honors county's Purple Heart recipients

By Ethan Smith
Published in News on August 8, 2014 1:46 PM

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Kenneth Quakenbush walks through sabers during the Purple Heart Banquet Walk of Honor Thursday night at First Pentecostal Church. Quakenbush, an Army veteran, received a Purple Heart for his service in the Vietnam War.

The First Church of Goldsboro is a starkly different setting than Chu Lai, Vietnam. But for Ken Quakenbush, both places have one thing in common: the Purple Heart.

The Goldsboro/Wayne Purple Heart Foundation held its annual ceremony Thursday night to honor Quakenbush and other residents of Wayne County who have received the honor, which is presented to those who are injured or killed in combat.

Quakenbush was only 19 when he earned his Purple Heart. In 1968, he found himself as part of an Army Reserve unit that was called to active duty. His unit was given a mere 31 days to prepare to go to Vietnam. He arrived just as the Tet Offensive began.

"I'll never forget it," Quakenbush said. "We were riding around in what was called a rocket pocket, through what I can only really describe as a valley, when the Vietcong fired a rocket out of the mountains around us. I was hit with a 122-millimeter rocket. It blew me out of the sky."

While Quakenbush laid on the ground, all he could think about was whether or not he was going to live or die. The fighting raged on around him for nearly an hour before he received help.

"All you could hear was rockets going off everywhere," he said. "My family flashed in front of my eyes while I was lying on the ground."

When he received medical attention, he was airlifted to Tokyo where he recovered from his wounds in three months time. He came home to Fort Bragg, where he was reunited with his family.

"My daughter was born while I was serving, and she was 4 months old before I saw her for the first time," Quakenbush said. "When I saw her, that was a very happy day."

For Quakenbush, both the horrors of war and the honor of receiving the Purple Heart is hard to put into words. The only thing he remains angry about is the reception Vietnam veterans received when they came home from fighting.

"We were spit on and called baby killers," he said. "It was just awful."

Al Greene, chairman of the Goldsboro chapter of the Purple Heart Foundation of North Carolina, had similar experiences when coming home from Vietnam.

"Those of you who served in Vietnam might remember what we encountered when we came home," Greene said. "We did not exactly get a welcome home."

The banquet honored living recipients of the Purple Heart, as well as next of kin of deceased recipients of the honor.

One of the men who was instrumental in starting the first local Purple Heart chapter decades ago was in attendance as well.

Bill Carr, a Marine, received his Purple Heart for his own service in Vietnam.

He said he considers it an honor not only to have received the medal, but to have served his country.

It is a sentiment that he says he sees often among those who are Purple Heart recipients, as well as among those who have served and still serve in the U.S. Armed Forces.

"Of all the medals that I have, and I don't have that many, this one is the most special," Carr said. "It was an honor and a privilege to fight for my country. I would do it all over again -- and that is how most Purple Heart recipients feel."

He still remembers the circumstances that led to his injury in Vietnam -- and the men who fought alongside him that day.

He says, too, that care should be taken to make sure that the special nature of the medal is protected from those who would claim the recognition of valor it offers, but who might not have earned the honor.

"It should not be taken lightly," he said.

The Purple Heart is too special for anyone to falsely claim it, Carr said. It represents heroes -- many of whom would never receive their medals in person.

"That is what I think about every day of my life, those boys who were with me, some of whom never made it home. Country and Corps, that's what we fought for," he said. "We have a motto, 'All gave some and some gave all.' I will never forget those who gave their lives to protect this great nation."

It is in their memory and their honor that Carr made his way to the banquet Thursday.

"I don't want anyone to forget the sacrifices made for this country," he said.

The road has not been easy for many of those who have Purple Hearts pinned to their chests.

Quakenbush now lives with post traumatic stress disorder from the experiences he had during and after the war, and much of his recovery was learning how to deal with the disorder.

"I relive it all the time," he said.

But events like the Purple Heart banquet help soothe the wounds of war, if only briefly, he said, if only because it helps people understand the sacrifices that have been made.

"If people are able to understand what we went through to receive this honor, it would be a lot better," Quakenbush said.