SISSONVILLE, W.Va. — Kenny Stone doesn’t talk much about his days in Vietnam. The things he witnessed. The hardships he faced. The tragedies he endured.
Instead, he lets a brand-new, over-sized American flag he’s been waiting on more than 50 years say it all for him.
“When I came back on the airplane, I got off and I actually kissed the ground, and I promised my dad and mom, I said, ‘I will never leave the U.S. again.’ And I never have, in 50-some years of my life,” he said.
“I really appreciate where I’m at and I really love our country,” Stone added.
And that’s despite the fact that he never planned on joining the U.S. Army in the first place. He just didn’t get a choice.
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Studying business administration back in the late 1960s, Stone wasn’t exactly the best student — except, oddly enough, in his Reserve Officers’ Training Corps class, which he said was required at the time.
“I went to West Virginia State College for one year. I was in ROTC and I made real good grades in that,” he laughed.
What he really loved back then, though, was cars, including his ‘65 Chevelle Malibu with its 400 horsepower engine.
“That was a lot back then,” Stone said. “We used to street race. We went out on (Interstate) 77 at Pocatalico and Haine’s Branch about 11 o’clock at night and raced until 2 in the morning.”
But the car — and all that gas — required money. So he “stepped out” of college for what he thought would be a few months.
The letter from the U.S. government — “I ended up getting drafted” — came faster than he’d expected.
“I made the best of it that I could. I was only in there for two years, but I made the best of it. I came back as a sergeant,” he said.
Still, it disrupted his life.
“It disappointed me when we were forced into a war over there. I went there really to fight for my country. But when I got over there, I realized that, my own opinion, I felt like it was a population war. Like, if you made it, you made it. If you didn’t, you didn’t. Really, we were in a war that probably wasn’t going to be won.”
He spent a year in Vietnam, serving in Long Binh, the Army’s largest base located in what was then South Vietnam; Bien Hoa, an air base used to deploy the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Okinawa; Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam; and Phu Bai in central Vietnam.
Wherever he was, it seemed there were constant explosions, mortar rounds that landed where they would do tremendous damage. One explosion came when he was in a truck, high enough off the ground that he wasn’t hurt. The gunman was thrown from the vehicle, Stone was knocked to the floor and pieces of metal flattened all 10 tires.
“But I didn’t get any shrapnel, so praise the Lord on that,” Stone said.
Along that rocky path, he learned some life lessons: That freedom isn’t free. That you fight for the things you believe in. And that the toughest ordeals you can face in life will make you stronger if you let them.
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Kenny Stone made it home in one piece, and today considers himself one of the lucky ones.
Some of his fellow soldiers came back angry — at the country. At the government. At God.
He came back with a deep respect that he stills feels today, and a red, white and blue vision that took more than half a century to fulfill.
“My flag started back then. I’ve always wanted one, ever since I came back from Vietnam. But I never had the money or anything to start it,” he said.
That changed earlier this year.
“We got our checks from Trump, the $1,200 checks, and I told my wife, ‘I know what I’d like to do with mine.’ And I said, ‘I’d like to put my flag up.’”
Barbara Stone is proud of her husband’s service.
“She said, ‘Well, go ahead and do it.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’ll be a start,’” Stone said with a laugh.
After all this time, he didn’t want just any flag. The flag he wanted was 18 feet long and 12 feet wide. It would take a 55-foot flagpole and a massive bed of cement to hold it.
One friend dug the hole. Another erected the pole.
“It took 5 yards of concrete to support it,” Stone said. In other words, a perfect square, “5 foot wide, 5 foot long, 5 foot deep.”
It took a crane to get the post up.
It stands more than four stories, towering over the Stone home and others nearby.
Kenny Stone looks at the starry field of blue, the waves of red flapping in the wind and remembers a band of brothers all fighting for the same team despite their many differences.
He still feels a sense of unity perhaps not everyone feels these days.
The flag, he said, represents one nation. One people.
“Together we stand and divided we fall,” he said.
“With everything that’s going on now,” the coronavirus, the rioting, “I really appreciate having something like that in my yard.
“It’s honor. It’s discipline. It’s respect. And freedom to choose, whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” he said.
Stone has installed powerful lights that beam on his flag at night. Sometimes, he said, he’ll step out into the yard and get lost just looking at it.
“When it blows in the wind, it really just brings tears to my eyes, to appreciate what I’ve got and the freedom that we have in our country,” he said.