MARIANNA, Fla.— If you go to James & Sikes Funeral Home, you may run into a beaming man with a quick-witted sense of humor.
And if you ask him about his service in the United States Armed Forces, his pride would be impossible to miss.
Spc. Ken Rogers, 69, served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
During his time, Rogers says the experience helped him grow in areas such as discipline, motivation, and teamwork.
“I never thought about not going,” he said. “My dad had served, most of my uncles. So, the thought of not joining the military never entered my mind. At this point in my life, it was an experience that I do not regret.”
Rogers was drafted July 22, 1969. At the time, he was living in his hometown of Middleton, Florida.
“I remember my first day of military service very well,” he says. “Very confusing, and on top of that, I was a 20-year-old, burr-headed kid. I thought I was street wise and I got mixed with these guys from New York, Chicago, Pennsylvania. I got mixed with them and got taught what streetwise was. But they were all pretty good guys.”
Rogers began his duty by serving in the infantry. Rogers says they were constantly on a mission.
“In the infantry, we did search and destroys, we did ambushes,” he said. “We did what I call a whole gamut. After a mission, they’d pull us back to a base camp and give us a day or two of rest and then we’d do the guard duty. They’d send us out and we’d do security from the convoys. So it was a whole gamut of different things.”
Rogers was in the infantry for less than four months before being transferred to an aviation unit. There, he says, they could be doing a multitude of jobs.
“We may have been inserting troops, may be a mailman, transporting parts or petroleum,” he says. “Sometimes we were flying VIPs, like colonels and majors, to base camps or meetings.”
Rogers says his favorite part of the aviation unit was flying the VIPs. Inserting troops, however, he was less fond of.
“The scariest parts were the troop insertions because they’d bomb the place out before the troops went in,” Rogers says. “And you know, the helicopter can only fly so close to the ground, so the guys would have to jump out. And some of them would fall on tree branches and whatnot. Some of them sustained injuries in the process.”
Rogers recalled in May of 1970, when he was transporting for the Cambodian invasions. According to Rogers, what was meant to be a four-day mission extended up to 30 days or more. He recalled carrying rice and guns for days on end to the troops.
According to Rogers, it’s only thanks to the grace of God that he made it through.
Contacting family wasn’t the easiest during those times, either. Rogers says letters would take about two weeks to reach home, and then it would take two weeks for letters to reach the troops, depending on where they were. Sometimes, they would find themselves at bases that had Military Auxiliary Radio Station, or MARS.
“It was like a ham radio and you could call home if everything was working,” he said. “Of course, if it was 10 o’clock in Vietnam, it was 12 or 1 in America, but no one seemed to mind when I woke them up.”
Rogers also says that depending on the area, there would be some forms of entertainment.
“If we went close to the Saigon area, they had PX’s, post-exchange, and like a grocery store, different commodities and things like that,” he said. “Some of them had outdoor theaters and whatever they had on, we’d watch it.”
In addition to the movies, entertainment would be provided by clubs sponsored by the USO. Rogers says he’s seen a few well-known names at said clubs.
“I’ve seen Bob Hope and Joey Heatherton,” he said. “The USO would bring these people in, if we were lucky enough to be on the base camp.”
Rogers was discharged July 21, 1971— one year and 364 days after being drafted.
Following his discharge, Rogers was sent to Fort Rucker, where he served on the honor guard.
“So I did funerals,” he said. “And during that time, there were quite a few. All we did all day long was practice and then we’d go do the funerals.”
Rogers says that the experience has shaped his view of life.
“I was 20 years old, out of high school, going to college,” he said. “I had a care-free life, didn’t think about tomorrow. And once I got into the military, the whole structure of my life changed.”
Rogers says that he is thankful for that change.
“They instilled in me motivation and teamwork,” he said. “Depending on other people, whether you knew them or not, you knew they’d be there. And it pushed me to be a better team member because you can’t let this guy down and he’s not going to let you down. I came back from the service with a whole new vision of life.”
Rogers says after coming back home, he did miss his military family.
“Honestly, I missed the military a lot at first,” he said. “It wasn’t difficult, per se. But I did miss the camaraderie.”
Rogers says he and three other retired soldiers maintain a friendship by going on vacations together. Next year will mark 50 years of their friendship.
“It didn’t take long to adjust back,” he said. “I knew the military wasn’t my life. But you live with these people, they’re your family.
Rogers has had multiple health problems as an outcome from the war.
“Fast forward and I’m still in Vietnam,” Rogers says. “I was diagnosed with stage 4 laryngeal cancer as a result from the Agent Orange. So I’ve been fighting that battle.”
If given the choice, however, he says he would still do it all over again.
“The military made me a better person,” he said. “That experience made me understand what America is all about.”