More than 50 years have passed since Kenneth “Doc” Whitton returned home after serving as a U.S. Army soldier in the Vietnam War.
It’s only been a few weeks since his long-awaited medals finally arrived.
“I’m shocked. I’m still in shock,” said Doc, sitting on his sofa in front of his professionally mounted medals, military patches and dog tags.
Doc joined the Army right after his high school graduation. He was only 17, so his mother had to sign for him.
He got his nickname in the heat of battle, despite his youth. When several of his fellow soldiers were shot and wounded, Doc grabbed a syringe from a nearby backpack and administered pain medication.
While Doc battled to stay alive overseas, his mom was worried at home, wondering how he was doing.
“She never knew from one letter to the next what was going on,” said Doc. “She just waited for the next one.”
Doc only wrote three letters to his mom while he was in Vietnam. Once, the phone rang and someone told her that her son was missing in action.
But Doc survived and made it home, surprising his mother, who fainted when he showed up at the door. Once she got over the shock of him being alive, she started urging him to write more letters, this time, to get the medals he had earned.
“I used to call my mom every Sunday,” said Doc. “She’d say, ‘Whatever happened to your medals?’ and I’d say ‘Mom, no word yet.’ She said ‘Write ‘em again!’”
But years went by, and no medals appeared.
When asked about his reception in the U.S. after serving in Vietnam, Doc described it in one word: “ugly.” He said his mom took him out for breakfast and a fellow customer slapped him when she realized he was a Vietnam veteran. Fifty-one years later, he got a much better response when telling his social worker, Michael Milligan, about his time in the Army.
“He just came over as a social worker, you know, for St. Luke’s, to check on me after falling and breaking my hip. It was a follow-up,” Doc said. “I had three weeks of follow-up, and he was one of the people (who) came over and checked on me, did this and did that. … But then all the sudden, somehow the medals came up and I gave him a copy of my 214, just like I do everybody.”
The DD Form 214 is an official document of the United States Department of Defense, issued upon a military service member's retirement, separation, or discharge from active duty. Armed with Doc’s 214, Milligan started a battle of his own — to get Doc his medals.
“Initially I talked to our local Veterans Service Officer and just found out additional information,” Milligan said. “It was probably one or two months before we started working with Senator (Mike) Crapo’s office and put in a request to help expedite the process.”
Doc had quietly been waiting for five decades already. But this time, he was waiting with more hope.
“I kept waiting for the UPS or the Fed Ex truck to bring these things – I thought they would come like that,” Doc said, gesturing to the shadow box of medals now hanging on his wall. “I didn’t know they’d come in a little brown envelope, all stuck in little bitty boxes”
That meant another wait for Doc and another project for Milligan—getting the medals professionally mounted to hang on the wall. After a few more weeks, Milligan delivered the newly mounted medals personally after Twin Falls’ Professional Picture Frame stepped up to help.
“When I brought the shadow box over, Doc must have seen me coming,” said Milligan. “He had a broom and was cleaning the space off.”
“I had cobwebs up there!” added Doc.
“He just kept saying ‘yeah, buddy!’ I don’t know how many times he said that when I was here,” Milligan continued. “He seemed to be so excited. It was just wonderful. It just made my day.”
It meant a lot to Milligan to see Doc so happy, and for Doc, the medals meant even more.
“It made my life,” Doc said. “I mean, 51 years, I’m only 72. That’s a lot of my years waiting.”
“I think it’s pretty amazing,” Milligan said. “I’m just glad that it came up in conversation.”
Doc’s awards include a National Defense Service Medal, an Army Commendation Medal with a Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon, a Good Conduct Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal with Bronze and Silver Star Attachments, a Marksman Badge and Pistol Bar and an Expert Badge and Auto Rifle Bar.
But the shadow box of the medals on the wall isn’t the only new addition to his surroundings — Doc has a brand-new ramp to get in and out of his house, courtesy of another St. Luke’s team member.
“I built the first one and I’m not a carpenter, so I made it work and it lasted a year,” Doc said. “From the weight and the weather, I wore a hole in the right side going down, so my scooter would kind of tip when I went down. Every time I go down that ramp and it leans like that, I’m afraid that thing’s gonna fall over. Or I’m gonna fall out of it. And I don’t need to be falling and breaking another hip!”
Bryan Borders, area manager of Home Health and Hospice for St. Luke’s Health System — and an Army veteran himself — agreed with Doc’s assessment.
“I walked in for the first time, and I saw the ramp and I had to ask Doc how he got up the ramp and he said he ‘just had to be really careful,’” Borders said. “And I thought, ‘I’ve got all the tools at home, I can build him a ramp.’”
Borders took measurements and promised to return. This time, it was a short wait, only a few days.
“He built it at home and brought it over and put it in,” Doc said.
Borders built the ramp at home in his workshop, using his own materials. It may have been a small project to Borders, but it helped create a big impression on Doc.
“They’re heroes,” Doc replied, when asked about Milligan and Borders. “They do their job and go above and beyond the call of duty.”
High praise from someone who served his country in wartime with honor all those years ago.
Kelly Franson is the public relations manager at St. Luke's Magic Valley.