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After 57-year delay, A Vietnam War veteran receives US Army Air Medal

Maryland Del. Justin Ready, (R-5A, Carroll Co.) pins the Air Medal on the shirt of George Keeney, who served in the Vietnam War and is now in hospice care at his humble New Windsor rancher on June 19, 2023. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun/TNS)

George Thomas Keeney, 76, a veteran of the Vietnam War, was due to receive his Air Medal from the U.S. Army on Nov. 6, 1966 — but it never came.

On Monday — 57 years later — Keeney, now bedridden, was finally presented the award in the living room of his New Windsor home, where he is receiving hospice care for heart failure and prostate cancer.

“This is going to make my day,” he said, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. “If I die tomorrow, I’ll be happy.”

Though sick and confined to his bed, Keeney was talkative, animated and overjoyed to receive a medal he never thought he would get.

“I feel great,” he said. “I never expected this. When I left from over there, the first six months I kept saying, ‘I ain’t getting nothing.’ I did what I was told, and they made these promises, and then they spit on me.”

Keeney, like many Vietnam veterans who returned home from the war, did not receive a hero’s welcome, but was sometimes treated poorly or scorned by society for fighting an unpopular war.

Keeney was finally honored for his service on Monday.

On hand to pay tribute to Kenney were Jason R. Sidock, executive director of the Carroll County Veterans Independence Project, a nonprofit organization that provides services to veterans; state Sen. Justin Ready, who represents both Carroll and Frederick counties; Carroll County Commissioner Tom Gordon III; and representatives from BridgingLife, a nonprofit that provides hospice care.

Sidock presented Keeney with a “Welcome Home Vietnam Veteran” coin, while thanking him for his service to the country.

Sidock credited BridgingLife for alerting his organization to the fact that Keeney had never received his Air Medal, which was long overdue, he said.

The Air Medal is a military decoration of the U.S. Armed Forces, established by an executive order, and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 11, 1942. It is awarded for single acts of heroism or meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.

Ready pinned the medal on a smiling Keeney, who said he was tickled to finally get it.

“This is long overdue,” said Ready, who pointed out that all Vietnam veterans deserve the medals they were entitled to. “I want to thank you for your service. You were drafted, and you did your job.”

It’s unclear why Keeney never received his Air Medal, since top military officials signed a certificate authorizing the award on Nov. 6, 1966.

“By direction of the president the Air Medal is presented to Private First Class E3 George E. Keeney United States Army, for distinguishing himself by meritorious achievement while participating in sustained aerial flight in support of combat ground forces of the Republic of Vietnam during the period 29 July 1966 to 9 August 1966,” the certificate states.

The certificate goes on to praise Keeney for his more than 25 aerial missions over “hostile territory” in support of counterinsurgency operations.

Gordon, who represents District 3, also presented Keeney with a special coin.

“Thank you is not enough,” Gordon said. “Thank you from all of us. This is from Carroll County. Thank you, sir.”

Belinda Eaton, Keeney’s daughter, described the presentation as “overwhelming.” She said her father was “shocked” when he learned that the Air Medal was finally coming.

Keeney served in the Army six years, and was sent to Vietnam in 1966, where he served two years. He was also in the U.S. Army Reserves. Keeney was an Army Sergeant E5 with the 229th Aviation Battalion when he when was discharged.

He and his family say his battle with cancer and heart failure is a byproduct from his time as a helicopter crew chief, spreading the chemical compound Agent Orange on the fields and jungles of Vietnam.

From 1962 to 1971, the U.S. Air Force sprayed nearly 19 million gallons of herbicides in Vietnam, of which at least 11 million gallons was Agent Orange, according to the National Library of Medicine website. Agent Orange was a toxic chemical herbicide used by the U.S. military to clear foliage during the Vietnam conflict.

“I sprayed Agent Orange, and unless you saw it, you don’t know how powerful it was,” Keeney said.


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