As many of you know, I was invited to be the military contributor for Maxim.com and recently I wrote an article detailing the stories of past Medal of Honor recipients. This week, I focused on the stories of 6 men from the Vietnam War. These men all had one thing in common, other than winner our nation’s highest honor; they were all Combat Medics, or the naval equivalent, Hospital Corpsman. In my research to showcase the amazing feats of some past Medal of Honor winners, we stumbled across the story of a certain Private First Class, Kenneth Michael Kays from Mount Vernon, Illinois. His story is both extraordinary and extremely heartbreaking. In my original article for Maxim.com, I only reported on the story behind why he was awarded this high honor, however, there is more to his story that I decided to share here, on the Graffiti of War Blog because of what the story focuses on, PFC Kays’ struggle with PTSD and this project’s vision to raise national awareness for those currently struggling with this invisible wound. Here is his story.
PFC Kenneth Kays was born in Mount Vernon, Illinois in the years after WWII and by the time he was 18, the war in Vietnam was continuing to rage on and the draft was inevitable for Kenny. However, Kenny was completely against the war in Vietnam and like many men against the war, he fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Only after his father, a veteran of World-War II pleaded with him to return, to fulfill his duty, did Kays return and was drafted as a conscientious objector. His status as an objector placed him as a medic with the 101st Airborne Division and he was assigned to the storied 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. By the middle of 1970, Kenny found himself knee-deep in the hell of Vietnam fighting for his life and those of his brothers-in-arms. As the medic of his platoon, his men were his mission, and his bravery and courage in face of certain death earned him the Medal of Honor but cost him physically and even more mentally. To read the full citation, visit www.maxim.com/dirtybriefs.
Kenny returned to duty and served the rest of his enlistment, never mentioning his courageous actions. After he was released, President Nixon invited Kenny to the White House to bestow on him the highest honor a soldier can earn, the Medal of Honor. Kays, with long hair and a beard, not the typical soldier-type and many of his platoon mates never even knew it was him. He returned to life, but normalcy evaded Kenny as he was forever plagued with the invisible wounds of his experiences. His physical wounds healed, though the scars and loss remained, but his mental wounds continued to fester. Kays was in and out of mental institutions and struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. The hell this man had seen had never left his mind. He continued to relive the experiences from that spring day in Vietnam and nothing, it seemed, would take away his survivor guilt or the pain that he experienced.
His community was no help either, the lack of respect he received from older veterans from World War II and the Korean War, they claimed he wasn’t in a war but simply a conflict. Others simply thought of him as strange and a dope addict, dismissing him as just another weirdo. Eventually, his habits got him in trouble with the law which further degraded him and without the help of others, the respect of his peers or the direction of a veterans organization, Kays continued his downward spiral deeper and deeper into the hell that is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was kept out of jail by a conditional release
to his elderly parents; however, this was not the treatment he needed.
His family life was deteriorating as his parents were afflicted lingering illnesses. By 1981, his mother Ethel took her own life after suffering a long-term illness which left her aged husband, John Kays, to care for their mentally ill son. Their life together, father and son, was beyond troubled and strained as John was suffering a long physical ordeal with cancer. Kenny was becoming unhinged by his fathers continued complaints of agony and at one point suggested he shot himself and be done with it, to which his father complied and took his own life in 1985.Kenny continued his downward spiral and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol having continued odd outburst and increasingly violent behavior, classic symptoms of PTSD. He withdrew more and more and by 1991, during the Gulf War, he told his neighbor he simply couldn’t go on this way. By Thanksgiving that same year, Kenny Kays, had reached the end of his rope, completely alone and utterly despaired, he took his own life over the holiday.
This is what happens to many of our nation’s heroes then and now. They are forgotten as our nation’s collective attention span rivals that of my three-year old. What was sure to unite us is forgotten in weeks or days. The man that is our hero and makes all the headlines is a drunk and a drug-addict just months later, forgotten and alone. These men and women risked their lives in the service of their country to protect their brothers and sisters-in-arms. They were willing to give their all, even if they didn’t agree with the politics, like the story of Kenny, they fulfilled their duty, gave their all and went above and beyond for those who needed them.
The least we can do, as citizens of this nation, is to ensure that stories like that of Kenny or that of Ira Hayes, another Medal of Honor winner who became invisible just like the wounds he suffered from. We, as Americans, as fellow human beings should not rest until we ensure never again will another hero, another veteran who served this nation suffer as Kenny did, as Ira did, never again will our veterans suffer alone and without help. This is our duty as citizens and should be our mission as compassionate human beings. I challenge our nation, our people to be resolved to ensure their care is assured, no matter what the cost. They never took cost into account and neither should we. Take up this cause, the cause of our heroes to never again suffer alone, never
For more information on Kenneth Kays visit this link or search for Troubled Hero by Randy Mills
For the full stories on the 6 Medal of Honor recipients visit