Plant Smith veteran survived Vietnam injuries … ‘I’m here for some reason’
(EDITOR'S Note: This is the third story in a series of articles that will run through Veterans Day on Nov. 11 featuring Gulf Power employees who have served in the military.)
PENSACOLA, Florida - Plant Smith employee Dennis Kern shakes his head, thinking about why he is still here on earth.
As an infantry soldier in the U.S. Army, Kern saw combat in the Vietnam War more than 40 years ago.
“You’re a 19-year-old kid and you’re running through rice paddies, holding an M-16 above your head,” he said. “You’re looking around wondering where the sniper is at.
“At least I made it home. Forty years later, I count my blessings every day.”
Many of his platoon buddies didn’t make it home. And Kern almost didn’t either.
He was a part of the 256th Infantry and his job was to walk along a tank on patrol and clear off the tank tracks if something clogged it up.
“We were always outside it, usually flanked behind it,” said Kern, who was drafted out of high school in 1970 and was sent to Vietnam in January 1971.
One day on patrol, a bomb hit the tank. Kern and three buddies were hit with shrapnel. Two of them died instantly. Kern woke up in a field hospital with numerous injuries, including a deep gash on his head.
He was transferred to Ramstein Air Base in Germany. He later had a steel plate inserted into his head. When he returned stateside two weeks later, his commission was up and he decided to leave the military.
“Some stuff you saw you don’t really want to remember,” he said. “I feel very lucky. Out of our platoon, me and only one other fellow are still alive. I’m here for some reason.”
Kern, 64, grew up a military brat and lived in Germany where since stepfather was stationed in the Air Force . Later, when Kern left the Army and returned home, he met and married Michele, who served in the Air Force for three years.
After the Army, he worked odd jobs for 10 years before joining Gulf Power. He’s been in Fuel Handling since 1999 and looks to retire next year after more than 25 ½ years.
Once he was talking to a Gulf Power co-worker, now retired, who served in the Marines in Vietnam at the same time Kern was there. In sharing their stories, they realized they probably were within 20 miles of each other.
When he goes to the VA hospital for checkups, Kern often talks to other veterans to hear their stories. And he sometimes shares his story.
“To this day, when I see another person who is in the service, I shake his hand and tell them I appreciate their service,” he said. “I count my blessings that I’m still here and there’s always a thousand others in way worse shape than I am. So I’m thankful for what I have.”