Farmington Veteran Receives New Pickup
FAYETTEVILLE — Marshall Kennedy, a Marine who lost his legs when a bomb exploded beneath him six years ago in Afghanistan, cringes when he says the word “hero.”
But on a recent afternoon, he’s having to say that word over and over again inside a Fayetteville coffee shop. He’s explaining the Human Exploitation Rescue Operative Child-Rescue Corps program, H.E.R.O. for short, of which he became a part after leaving the Marines.
Each time, he pauses and squirms in his seat.
“I didn’t do anything special,” he said, explaining his aversion to the word when talking about himself. “I just did my job. That was it.”
Kennedy, 32, of Farmington, received a hero’s welcome at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Aug. 12 when the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a service organization for combat-wounded veterans, gave him a specially equipped Ford Raptor truck.
It’s the second year the national organization has searched the country for a Purple Heart recipient to receive the modified purple truck, and the first year an Arkansan was selected.
“[Kennedy] was, by far, the candidate that stuck out to us,” said John Bircher, a national spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
For Kennedy, it’s complicated. He was thrilled when he heard he’d been selected to receive the truck. But as he thought more about it, he had second thoughts.
Surely there was a veteran more deserving, more in need than himself, he thought.
“Especially some of those Vietnam veterans,” Kennedy said. “After the way they were treated, all they went through. One of them ought to get it.”
That’s not to say he’s not grateful. He certainly is and says so repeatedly.
In April 2011, Kennedy, a Forrest City native, had just radioed in coordinates for a helicopter landing zone in Sangin, Afghanistan, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. The blast was weak. Kennedy suspects that the device had been there for a while and lost some of its potency.
The explosion injured his ankle and sidelined him for a few days, which he calls his “mid-deployment vacation,” but it was severe enough to earn him a Purple Heart.
It would still be several months before he lost most of both his legs.
The Military Order of the Purple Heart is one of the many veterans service organizations facing dwindling membership rolls and decreased involvement as veterans of 20th-century wars die off. Participation from veterans of conflicts that followed the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, hasn’t kept pace. Additionally, the number of Purple Heart recipients has steadily shrunk since World War II as combat has evolved.
In Arkansas, the most accurate count of Purple Heart recipients comes from orders for specialty license plates. There are 431 Military Order of the Purple Heart members in Arkansas but 3,639 Purple Heart license plates, according to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. It should be noted, however, that some of those license plates may be duplicates belonging to veterans with multiple vehicles.
Organization leaders hope the truck and Saturday’s public ceremony at War Memorial Stadium will make more people aware of the group, which allows family members of Purple Heart recipients to join in a nonvoting capacity.
The central Arkansas chapter has already taken steps catered toward younger veterans. Meetings have been moved to afterwork hours, and all events are family-oriented.
The first priority is for group members to support one another, said Mark Diggs, senior vice commander for the Arkansas chapter. Sometimes that’s moral support; sometimes that’s cutting the grass or helping a veteran’s family while he’s receiving chemotherapy treatments, he said.
“We’ve depended on the guy on the right and left when the chips are down,” he said.
The Little Rock event also was the ceremonial debut of a statewide initiative to place “combat wounded reserved parking” spaces at government buildings and private businesses across the state.
There are a few scattered across the Natural State, but the group is offering businesses the sign in exchange for a $50 donation, and it will install the sign and paint the lines for $250. Both donations are tax deductible.
Two months after the explosion tweaked his ankle, Kennedy, an infantry squad leader, was on a routine clearance mission in Sangin, which he describes as having a landscape that’s a mix between North Carolina and Twentynine Palms, Calif. He was on his fourth deployment. It was June 13, 2011.
Afghans in the area alerted Kennedy’s squad to a nearby weapons cache. The troops called for an ordnance-disposal team and began checking another compound when Kennedy bent down to assess the situation.
His left foot hit a pressure plate of yet another device, but this explosion was stronger.
The blast catapulted him through the air, and he slammed into a wall. He never lost consciousness as his legs were traumatically amputated.
“Just doing my job,” he says now.
He spent about a yearand-a-half in rehabilitation and treatment and now walks with prosthetics.
He’s 12 hours shy of a criminal-justice degree at the University of Arkansas, but he put that on hold while participating in the child-rescue program, which has trained him to be a criminal forensic computer analyst.
Currently, he’s interning at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as part of a task force in Northwest Arkansas that investigates crimes against children such as abuse and exploitation .
“It gives me that purpose,” Kennedy said. “That’s kind of the problem once you get out, is trying to find that purpose, and that’s what this does.”
Marshall Kennedy, second from left, received a new purple, specially equipped Ford truck (in the background) during a ceremony Saturday at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock. The truck came from the Military Order of the Purple Heart. This is the first year an Arkansan has been selected for the honor. Kennedy of Farmington served with the U.S. Marines. Rep. Steve Womack stands next to Kennedy.
Marshall Kennedy is pictured here.