Coeburn man receives Vietnam War medals

Stephen Igo • Feb 4, 2019 at 7:30 PM

COEBURN — Half a century after Elmer Kiser of Caney Ridge put himself in harm’s way to save the life of a fellow soldier in Vietnam, the now 71-year-old received medals that either got lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy or in the ensuing years of postwar life.

Kiser was a 19-year-old private first class when his unit (Company C, 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division) came under fire upon approach to a treeline in the Dien Hoa Province of South Vietnam. His platoon commander, Lt. James H. Dodd, went down, and Kiser went forward to the officer’s aid.

Exposed to enemy fire, Kiser told Dodd to “play dead” while the private scoped out the situation with bullets kicking dirt around him and into his face, with at least a fragment winding up in his leg. That bullet fragment remains there to this day.

“Then I figured out they were firing from up in the trees, so that’s when I returned fire,” and his aim was effective enough to silence at least three snipers. “Then I hollered back to the M-60 (machine gun) gunner to spray the trees. By then a medic had come forward and helped me get the lieutenant back to where he was safe,” Kiser said.

For his actions that day, the Army awarded Kiser a Bronze Star with “V” for valor along with a Purple Heart. Before the end of his tour of duty in 1968, Kiser earned three more Purple Hearts, an Army Air Medal (involving a bit of a dustup while aboard a helicopter to help suppress enemy ground fire), an Army commendation medal for heroism, and an assortment of other chest hardware he didn’t seek but certainly deserved.

Kiser received some of those medals but misplaced what he did have in the years since. Recently he contacted the office of Congressman Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, to see how a vet goes about replacing lost military awards, offering to pay “because some of ‘em are kind of pricey, you know. But (Griffith) said, ‘I can get ‘em for you,’ and that’s how it came to be why we’re here today,” said Kiser. 

“Here” was the Old Depot in Coeburn, where Griffith formally presented Kiser’s full array of deserved recognition from his country. Kiser’s family, including wife, Sandra, and seven grandchildren, were in attendance, along with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars contingent and others.

Griffith said once he got a look at Kiser’s military record and the medals to be provided or replaced, he knew Kiser deserved a formal presentation rather than receiving them boxed up and delivered like some trinkets ordered off Amazon.

“It’s a real honor. We like to do these things for our veterans when we can, and it truly is an honor. It’s one of the great privileges for me as a congressman,” Griffith told the Times News. “But all we did was push a few buttons. He earned them, and this day is about him. Not me.”

While chatting with Kiser prior to Friday’s presentation, Griffith said he asked Kiser for details about that Army Air Medal “and (Kiser) just said, ‘Oh, sometimes they’d take us out and sometimes we’d get into a firefight,’ “ Griffith said. “None of us who weren’t there can ever really know what took place. But I don’t think they hand out an Air Medal just for getting on a helicopter.”

Kiser said he’d “just turned 19” when he arrived in Vietnam, leaving the States just before Christmas of 1967 and returning just after Christmas of 1968. Kiser’s birthday is in November.

“Well, I was just scared to death,” he said of his initial impression of the war. “I’d never been anywhere before that, where I grew up around here as a country boy and all. It was a rough place. The trouble of it was, half the time you didn’t know who you were fighting.”

Kiser has unpleasant memories of his return to the States, with protesters in California spitting at the troops and “throwing stuff at us and such nonsense,” but he still smiles over a satisfying comeback. Turned out a plane to get Kiser on his first leg back home was overbooked, and an airline agent decided to bump a civilian off the flight rather than make Kiser wait for another plane.

“Turns out the guy he bumped so I could get the last seat was one of them who’d been out there protesting,” Kiser grinned. “Now I know (the airline agent) did that a-purpose, just for me. I’ll never forget that.”

Kiser said he had one more favor he wanted to ask Griffith, and that was to help him track down Lt. Dodd. “I think the lieutenant was from New York or New Jersey one. I’m not altogether sure. I’d just like to know if he’s still alright.”