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50 states, 50 heroes: A wound too deep

Born Sept. 22, 1949, in Mount Vernon, Illinois, Kenneth “Kenny” Michael Kays reached adulthood during the Vietnam War. An ardent opponent of the war, Kays went to Canada to avoid the draft, only returning when his father, a World War II veteran, pleaded with him to come home and do his duty. Kays was drafted into the Army in 1969, but because he was a conscientious objector, he was allowed to become a medic.

After basic training, then Pvt. Kays was assigned to Company D, First Battalion of the 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. On May 7, 1970, less than 24 hours after joining Company D, Kays found himself in combat. Company D was at a position near Fire Support Base Maureen in the Thua Thiên-Hue province of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) when it came under attack by a heavily armed force of enemy North Vietnamese sappers and infantry. In the ensuing intense firefight, the cries of “Medic!” resonated through the air. Ignoring the vicious enemy fire, Kays began running up and down the perimeter to treat his wounded comrades, consistently exposing himself to enemy fire.

As Kays worked, the North Vietnamese began to concentrate their fire on him. On his way to treat another wounded American, Kays suddenly fell to the ground as an explosive charge severed the lower portion of his left leg. After applying a tourniquet to stem the bleeding, Kays got up and continued along the fire-swept perimeter, administering medical aid to one man and helping move him to safety.

While his injury could have allowed him to be evacuated, Kays returned to the perimeter and found a second wounded man. Shielding him with his body, Kays provided first aid and got him moved to safety. He then went beyond the company’s perimeter into enemy territory to treat and rescue another wounded American soldier.

Through the whole ordeal, while in pain and losing blood, Kays refused to have his wounds tended to until his fellow soldiers were treated and evacuated.

After recovering, Kays finished his service in the Army and was discharged as a private first class in 1971. During the remainder of his time in the service, he never spoke about what happened at Fire Support Base Maureen.

In November 1973, Kays was invited to the White House to be presented the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon. Wearing civilian clothing and sporting a beard and long hair, Kays was initially unrecognized by his comrades who came for the ceremony.

While his physical wounds healed, Kays never recovered mentally from his wartime experience. Suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and dealing with the lack of respect many Vietnam veterans were shown at the time, Kays resorted to drug and alcohol abuse. On Nov. 29, 1991, the 42-year-old Kays ended his life. He was buried in Maple Hill Cemetery in Fairfield, Illinois.

In 2006, Oakland City University Professor Randy Mills published a book about Kays entitled “Troubled Warrior: A Medal of Honor, Vietnam, and the War at Home.” On May 5, 2007, a memorial was dedicated in Kays’ honor in Fairfield during a service attended by some who served with Kays. During the dedication, Joe Keoughan, one of Kays’ closest friends, said, “Kenny wouldn’t have wanted any of this. If you knew the real Kenny Kays, though, you knew he was a pretty remarkable human being. Not many people could pull the strength up and out of themselves like Kenny did to earn the Medal of Honor.”

Mills also spoke, saying, “Today’s memorial service begins the healing for this community and those who served with Kenny. In the end, he helped more people than he realized.”