War veteran's change of 'Heart'
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    Exclamation War veteran's change of 'Heart'

    War veteran's change of 'Heart'
    Retired Marine to accept honor 34 years after being wounded in battle

    By Jennifer Broadwater
    jbroadwater@patuxent.com
    Posted 5/21/09

    Allen Bailey's memories of Koh Tang are still vivid, even after 34 years.

    Scenes from the small island off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand are inescapable for Bailey, a 53-year-old Highland resident who fought in Koh Tang on May 15, 1975, as a 19-year-old Marine, in what would be the last American battle of the Vietnam War.

    Scars from grenade shrapnel wounds and the 12-inch tropical thorn that pierced his knee remain, along with the images that haunt his sleep, particularly at this time of year.

    "It's in my head. It's something I think about every day of my life," Bailey said.

    The intense and mixed emotions that resulted from his experience at Koh Tang led Bailey to refuse the Purple Heart, awarded to members of the armed forces injured in combat.

    Now, however, he considers that decision a mistake. And through the efforts of his wife, Tina, and the support of fellow veterans, it is a mistake that will soon be rectified.

    On June 6, less than two weeks after Memorial Day, when the nation honors the men and women who died while in the military service, Bailey, at long last, will receive his Purple Heart.

    "It's overwhelming," Bailey said. "I'm proud that I'm an American, that I wanted to serve my nation like so many people before me."

    Tina Bailey was inspired to seek the award for her husband after hearing combat stories from his fellow veterans at a reunion in 2005 -- the first time Bailey had reconnected with Koh Tang veterans since finishing his active duty in 1976.

    "He's deserving of it, and his young pride turned it down. I helped correct that mistake he made," Tina said. "Allen never openly asked me, never ever, to pursue this. He didn't believe it would ever happen. I said, 'Let's try.' "

    Proving her husband's eligibility for the combat decoration was no easy feat, Tina Bailey said, and made her something of an amateur historian.

    While awaiting responses to her many requests for her husband's service and medical records, she read all she could find on the Battle of Koh Tang, which began when Cambodian communist forces, the Khmer Rouge, seized U.S. merchant ship S.S. Mayaguez in the Gulf of Thailand. She researched the oral histories on tape at the presidential library of Gerald Ford to track down the whereabouts of Marines and officers who might remember Bailey and provide witness statements.

    The Navy's retired records section denied Bailey's first Purple Heart request in June 2008, stating that his personnel records did not indicate he had been injured.

    Frustrated but undaunted, Tina Bailey next turned to U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin's office. After eight months working with Cardin staffer Anne Irby, the Department of the Navy's Military Awards Branch verified in late March that Bailey was entitled to the Purple Heart.

    The family is expecting more than 100 guests at the June 6 ceremony, which will be held at U.S. Marine Corps 4th Combat Engineer Battalion headquarters, in Baltimore.

    Military in his blood

    Bailey, who grew up in College Park, enlisted in the Marines to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who served in World War II and the Spanish-American War, respectively.

    During combat training in Okinawa, he remembers sloshing through thigh-deep jungle mud, bivouacking against the pounding monsoon season rain and feasting on fresh pineapple from the fields. That training was cut short, however, when his unit -- Company G, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines -- was called to action after the Cambodian hijacking of the Mayaguez.

    Bailey was among the approximately 200 Marines sent to the island of Koh Tang to rescue the ship's captain and crew, although they would later learn that the Americans had been released before the Marines even landed on the island.

    Bailey's memories are intense: the heat, the exhaustion, the weight of his 80-pound load, and the "smell of military, the smell of war."

    He boarded the first in a line of choppers bound for Koh Tang.

    "I didn't know where I was at. I was 19," he said. "When that chopper took off -- the adrenaline rush, the sound and the smell -- it was like I knew I was going to war."

    Bailey recalls watching a stunning sunrise over the crystal blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, knowing that the bright sun would spoil the Marines' element of surprise.

    His helicopter touched down on the beach just before 6 a.m., under heavy fire. Flat down on the floor of the chopper, he watched beams of light pierce the craft in hundreds of spots where bullets had penetrated its metal shell. "It sounded like a knife running through cardboard or metal, like stabbing through an aluminum can," he said.

    Once on the beach, time seemed to slow down, he said. His unit established a defensive zone and watched as other helicopters failed to touch down.

    "They had us nailed down. We were being fired on like rain," he said. "That 45 minutes without other choppers seemed like 45 days."

    U.S. casualties from the one-day battle comprise the last 41 names engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington -- 18 killed in action, including three Marines inadvertently left behind, and 23 servicemen who died in a helicopter crash.

    Shrapnel from grenade blasts lodged in Bailey's legs, arms and back. At one point, as he crawled past a tree, a 12-inch thorn pierced Bailey's left knee.

    "No one is the same after that," Bailey said of his combat experience on the island. "I had to grow up fast.

    "Here I am, I've never killed anybody and these guys I'm going up against, they're hardcore killers.

    "If it wasn't for my buddies, I wouldn't be here today. I didn't fight this battle alone."

    Bailey's combat comrades give him just as much credit. In a witness letter supporting Bailey's nomination for the Purple Heart, Clifford Henderson, a Marine radioman at the time, said Bailey, despite suffering shrapnel wounds, carried him to safety after he was knocked unconscious.

    In another witness statement, former 2nd Lt. James McDaniel, Bailey's platoon commander, called Bailey "honest, hard working, enthusiastic" and "one of the best performing Marines" in his platoon.

    "When I talked with him about qualifying for a Purple Heart award based on his shrapnel and thorn wounds, he dismissed the idea because he felt his wounds were not as serious as other Marines," McDaniel wrote. "I asked him a couple more times, but he was insistent he should not be nominated for the award."

    To this day, Bailey, who works as a tree doctor, downplays his wounds.

    "The physical injuries are nothing compared to the mental injuries I deal with every day," he said. "I had so many of my friends get killed and injured so much more severely than me. You have to understand I was a very gung-ho patriot."

    But the reservations that led him to reject the Purple Heart have since softened.

    "I'm honored to receive the Purple Heart after all these years," he said. "So many Americans have sacrificed so much, and I'm honored to receive this later in my life.

    "The American people, they should appreciate and thank their forebears and the people who've protected this nation," he said. "We're all blessed to live in such a nation."

    Ellie

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