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Tarentum VFW helps Vietnam vet to finally get medals, recognition

Matthew Medsger
| Friday, Aug. 11, 2017, 6:57 p.m.

One line of text, buried deep inside a stack of paperwork inches thick, was all it took to finally get a Vietnam veteran from Creighton the recognition he deserves.

Nearly 45 frustrating years of waiting and fighting with the federal government — and the help of Army veterans — brought Francis “Mac” McKenna, a former Air Force sergeant and munitions expert, the closure he sought for so long.

McKenna, 67, decades after his time in the service ended, was presented his medals Friday in a small ceremony at VFW Post 5758 in Tarentum.

He was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the Air Force Good Conduct Medal, the Air Force Longevity Service Award, Vietnam Service Medal with bronze star device and a Vietnam Gallantry cross with palm.

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pennsylvania, was on hand to present the medals.

“If we have the money to build these planes and bombs and weapons, and send men and women out to serve us, when they come home there shouldn't be any argument about what it costs to take care of them,” Doyle said.

McKenna's draft number came up in 1969, but he enlisted in the Air Force that September, before he could be drafted.

McKenna said he wasn't supposed to go to Vietnam. He said his mother petitioned Congress to keep him home as the only surviving heir to the family name.

Congress agreed, and McKenna's service was supposed to be stateside only — until he volunteered to take the place of another airman who had a baby on the way.

“We went to the commander's office and asked him if we could switch,” McKenna said, “and I was off.”

His service overseas sent him under classified order to Thailand. He participated in subsequent bombing campaigns in Laos and Cambodia.

That service should have qualified McKenna for wartime medals when he left.

But like so many participants in that theater of operations, the secret nature of his actions were left off his records for the most part — leaving him without proof of his overseas service.

All McKenna had to show for his time in Thailand was a letter from his commander to his mother, ordering her to keep McKenna home for as long as needed following a death in the family.

That letter wasn't proof enough for the United States government, however, and McKenna's frequent requests to have his records changed were denied time and again.

He visited veterans organizations hoping to find help. After a few disappointing meetings with organization officers, he was ready to give up.

Things changed when McKenna met Curt Hetrick, quartermaster of Post 5758, and VFW member Greg Heinle.

While other veterans representatives had failed, Hetrick and Heinle, who spent time in the service as personnel troops, knew the ins-and-outs of military record keeping like few others.

Still, it took three years to get to the bottom of McKenna's service history.

“I was ready to give up,” Hetrick said. “Until we found one line — one little line in his records — that said ‘assigned to duty in Thailand September of 1972 to March of 1973.”

That one line was enough to show that McKenna was involved in wartime operations — and due the medals that go along with it.

Doyle called the recognition “long overdue.”

“Eventually, and with the work of many people, we got the service record corrected. You were certainly due these medals that I have the pleasure of pinning on you today,” Doyle said.

“I want to extend my appreciation to (the VFW post) that really made it possible for it to be recognized that I really was over there,” McKenna said.

Matthew Medsger is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4675, mmedsger@tribweb.com or via Twitter @matthew_medsger.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle pins medals onto the shirt of Vietnam veteran Francis B. 'Mac' McKenna at the Tarentum VFW on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle pins medals onto the shirt of Vietnam veteran Francis B. 'Mac' McKenna at the Tarentum VFW on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.
Two of the four medals to be given to Vietnam veteran Francis B. 'Mac' McKenna, lay on a table before the ceremony at the Tarentum VFW on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.
Michael Swensen | Tribune-Review
Two of the four medals to be given to Vietnam veteran Francis B. 'Mac' McKenna, lay on a table before the ceremony at the Tarentum VFW on Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.
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