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Remembering a war that was never won

The Signal documents veteran R.J. Kelly's experiences in Vietnam

Posted: September 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 22, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Vietnam War veteran R.J. Kelly was awarded two Purple Hearts and a commendation medal.

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of interviews with local Vietnam veterans prompted by this week’s arrival of the American Veterans Traveling Tribute Memorial Wall in the Santa Clarita Valley.


“War in Vietnam was interesting because it was like cowboys and Indians. Good guy had the white hat, bad guy had the black hat; but the bad guys had no problem wearing white when they were in the villages.”

R.J. Kelly leaned back in his chair, surrounded by the scattered papers and humming computer noises of an average business office. But not a lot about this accountant is average: Kelly is a Vietnam veteran, a Purple Heart recipient and a retired sniper.

“There was very little trust and very little sympathy for the locals when you didn’t really know who the locals were,” the Santa Clarita Valley businessman recalls of the Vietnam War. “The problem was that the locals had more fear of their own then they did of the Americans.”

Kelly was 19 years old when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 1966. After training for six months in the United States, Kelly was dropped into a platoon full of strangers in the jungles of a foreign country.

“We got our instructions on how to go out on patrol and, you know, what to look for and to make sure you don’t deviate from the path,” he recalled during a recent interview. “About an hour into patrol, one of the guys decided to go into the trees to take a shortcut to go see his buddy and got blown up.”

It was Kelly’s second day of the war. The man whose legs were blown off had less than 30 days left of his tour.

“The body landed like he was sitting up and he’s looking at you and he’s talking to you and he’s not saying anything and his arms are moving but it’s just nerves.”

As “the new guy,” Kelly said, he was in charge of the body bags, so he had to collect the body parts. “Seeing the person get blown up and thrown through the air was pretty devastating for your second day in Vietnam.”

Starting as a Marine Corps “grunt,” Kelly spent two years in Vietnam and 25 years in the service. He eventually became a sniper, going on single-man missions isolated from other American forces.

His time in Vietnam was abruptly ended by an explosion that killed 27 troops and paralyzed him for three years. He recalls seeing the faces of two men as they attempted to save his life.

“It was fight and survive. Once you were over there, it was a survival game,” he says. “We were very vulnerable in all aspects of the war; we couldn’t go in there thinking we were Godzilla and we were going in there to step on the mice. They were very crafty, very numerous and we were on their turf.”

“I can tell you stories,” Kelly said. “I can tell you a lot of stories.

“I can tell you a story of a platoon that went up with 300 people and came down with seven.

“I can tell you that we had a group of Marines that decided to go back to Vietnam and pick up a lot of bodies and dog tags of fallen soldiers that were killed in the mountains and left for different reasons.

“I can tell you of a friend, we went through basic training together and we went into different companies and we had met when we were on patrol and they were working the same basic territory and they were going into a village and we were not, and about a month later we crossed paths again and I asked where Mike was and they said, ‘Well, he’s no longer with us.’”

Kelly sees this week’s arrival in Santa Clarita of the American Veterans Traveling Tribute Memorial Wall — an 80 percent replica of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. — as part of a growing acceptance in America of the war that took 58,286 American lives and was never won.

“Many of us haven’t talked about Vietnam for many, many years. In fact, this is coming up to 45 years and a lot of us are just opening up and starting to talk because we feel a more comfort level,” he said. “We are feeling and getting more thank you’s and recognition from people in town.”

When he visits the wall in the Santa Clarita Valley, Kelly said, he will look for the names of the two men whose faces he saw immediately after the explosion that paralyzed him — to see if they survived the war or if their names are etched into the marble stone of the wall.

The AVTT Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall goes on display at the Westfield Valencia Town Center mall on Thursday. Opening ceremonies are at 6 p.m. The wall will remain on display 24 hours a day until closing ceremonies at 5 p.m. on Sept. 29.

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