Return of war medals: ‘We have him back with us’

For nearly three decades Pat Keener did not have closure after the death of her husband, a U.S. Special Forces soldier in Vietnam.

The family of Richard C. Keener, who did two tours in Vietnam, had nothing to show for his service. His medals had been lost and never recovered. That is until a chance discovery and dedicated search by American Legion members 2,500 miles away from the Los Angeles home of Keener’s widow.

On Monday, American Legion members returned Keener’s medals, including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and green beret to Pat Keener during a ceremony at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in Los Angeles. Her husband died in 1988.

“For 28 years I wondered what happened to my husband,” she said. “Now as far as my children and I are concerned, he's back. We never thought we'd get anything from him, but now it's kind of a sign he's home with us again. We respected him, we loved him, we knew what kind of man he was, and the kind who are serving now. And I pray each night that no wife has to go through what I had to go through.”

Last month in Vinton, Va., the medals and beret were discovered in a Goodwill store by manager Charlene Allen, a U.S. Navy veteran. When Allen saw the contents of the donated box, she immediately contacted American Legion Post 3 Commander Roy Carpenter in Salem, Va. Carpenter then showed the discovery to Department of Virginia Commander James Chapman and American Legion National Vice Commander Jim Lane during a post revitalization effort in Roanoke, Va.

Lane and Chapman set out to search the Internet for clues to the rightful owner of the medals. Fortunately, they knew the name because in the Vietnam era, certain medals included the name of the individual on the back. In this case, Richard C. Keener.

Lane and Chapman went to work and dug up about 25 matches in Pennsylvania because they found that Keener had passed away in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, in 1988. Nothing came out of those phone calls.

However, they continued searching until they found Pat’s name in Los Angeles. "Man, could it be?” Chapman remembers asking after leaving a message. “Maybe an hour later, she called back. She was really emotional, as was I. We discovered then, that's where they belonged.”

Pat recalls how shocked she was at the initial contact.

“I listened to the message, sat there for about 10 minutes in total shock and after an hour of crying, and then finally called him back,” she explained. “My husband decided to go to Pennsylvania. He lived here in California, but he was out there in Pennsylvania when he died and we were not allowed to go to his funeral.”

Keener’s mother did not get along with the family in California, and they were not notified of his death until after the funeral. “We never knew anything about his last year of life,” Pat says. “But now we have him back with us. And I want to thank The American Legion for doing that for us.”

The Keener family expected the medals to be mailed to them, but the Legion wanted to ensure that the medals were delivered in person. “This is a really important task that we feel obligated and responsible to do,” Chapman said. “These folks deserve to be reconnected with their husband and father after 28 years. It's just inspiring. I can't say any more about it, I’m so happy to be part of this.

“As far as we’re concerned in The American Legion, we just can’t forget our veterans. We can’t forget what they gave to our country, and we’ll do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to make it right so that the family can appreciate it.”

Chapman views the return of a comrade’s medals as a duty. “That man served in combat,” explained Chapman. “He did two tours in Vietnam, he’s a green beret, he has air medals, he has Bronze Star, several other awards with multiple clusters and ‘V’ for valor, so it’s obvious that he won these in some heavy combat. And then Pat informed us that he had been wounded in the head by an AK-47 round and when they were getting ready to ship him back for his third tour they said no, you’re not going back.”

Pat says that her husband suffered from PTSD, even though it was not called post traumatic stress disorder at the time. “He had no help from the VA or the military,” she said. “At that time there was no help. You were lucky people didn't spit on you.”

During the medals return ceremony on Monday, American Legion members were fortunate to share in the moment with Keener’s family. His wife, daughter and grandson were able to see how respected he was.

“I was the youngest of my father's children and the very few memories I have of my father is that he was always just a giving and loving person,” said Trish Keener, who was 10 years old when her father died. “We spent a lot of time on the swing set, played in the front yard. I remember the good times. Although he may not be physically here on this earth, I know he's always there.”

Keener’s death was presumably connected to wartime exposure to the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. “I’m legally blind in my right eye because of the Agent Orange effects. So that put a lot of strain on my life,” Trish said. “Growing up I felt different. I had a lazy eye for a long time, but I always reverted back to actually talking to my dad and having conversations with him, and he’s the person that got me through a lot of stuff.”

Trish describes growing up in a rough neighborhood and relying on the inner strength her father taught her when she was young. “He taught me to be the person I am today. I wouldn't be as strong as I am if I wasn't the daughter of a soldier, that's my father. I want to say thank you to you all for doing what you do. You don't have to do what you do.”

The ceremony was meaningful to the Keener family. “It means closure for my mom,” said Trish. “She never remarried, she never found another spouse or mate after my father. She devoted herself to us. I've always admired her. And I know she always needed closure, especially after 28 years. It’s just amazing to see that she can now move on with her life and just be happy. You know, she's put herself through a lot of pain wondering why, where are these medals and why aren't they home. Just knowing that they are out there, not knowing where they were. I'm sure it's been a long trying road for my mom, but now she can be happy again, you know? It's good to see a smile on her face.”

The return of the medals also made an impression on the Legion members who took part. “I can’t tell you how great it is to be here,” said Chapman. “For me personally I just couldn’t find anything more satisfying. I’ll probably be friends of theirs for life.”