Three times Gene Kopec of North Port was wounded while fighting in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. He received three Purple Hearts and took part in the Battle at Khe Sanh. Here North Vietnam Army regular troops and Vietcong guerillas went head-to-head against American and South Vietnamese soldiers along the Demilitarized Zone in the biggest single enemy offensive of the war.
“The minute I got out of high school I walked down to the Marine Corps Recruiting Station and signed up. I didn’t want to take the job my father found for me at American Can Company working in a factory,” the 65-year-old Marine explained.
After basic and advanced infantry training Kopec arrived in Vietnam in 1967 aboard the helicopter attack ship “Iwo Jima.” He was a member of the recently formed 26th Marine Regiment.
“We were stationed off the beach and used as assault troops flown into battle by helicopter. I received my first Purple Heart during one of my first firefights called ‘Operation Prairie.’
“We were deployed by helicopter into Quang Tri Province. When we arrived we were taking enemy mortar rounds. My two machine-guns were deployed and two mortars took out both my guns,” he said.
“One of my gunners was screaming he had been hit. He stood up and got shot by the enemy. He fell down and got up a second time. That’s when I knew I had to go get him,” Kopec said almost 50 years later.
“I ran out, picked him up and was carrying him back on my shoulders. At that moment I saw three NVA solders coming up the valley. The next thing I knew something hit my leg.
“I started running again with the wounded Marine I was carrying him right by a foxhole with a corpsman I knew. He yelled at me, ‘Gene, Don’t look down.’ Unfortunately I did. I could see blood spurting out of my leg.”
He went down while carrying his wounded buddy.
“The corpsman reached out and dragged us into his foxhole. The sad thing was the Marine I was carrying died in the foxhole.
“I ended up in a hospital on Okinawa. It took me six weeks to recover from my leg wound,” Kopec recalled.
“About this time the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Division had arrived in Okinawa for a little R and R. As they were leaving to go back to Vietnam I joined up with them.
We flew into Khe Sanh in C-130 transports while the battle was underway,” he said.
“The air strip was under mortar fire and the pilot never stopped the plane. We jumped off as it rolled down the runway and flew off once more. After we finally arrived we were given the task of assaulting Hill 881 overlooking all of Khe Sanh.”
What he and his fellow Marines didn’t know initially was, the hill was a hive of NVA tunnels containing scores of enemy soldiers. This only came to light the next morning when the 3rd Division was being attacked from all sides while trying to finish taking the hill away from the enemy.
“The whole hill was honey combed with enemy tunnels. Our problem was we couldn’t tell our friends from our enemies. The NVA were inside our perimeter defenses and my lieutenant and I were pinned down in our foxhole,” Kopec said.
“When first light finally came our gun ships came in to support us on Hill 881. Unfortunately one of our gun ships opened up on some of our troops and wiped out our company commander’s bunker. At that point we had only been on the hill a day.”
It was about this time he took a glancing shot to his right arm. It wasn’t a serious wound, but my corpsman wanted me out of there. I boarded a chopper and was airlifted to a MASH hospital unit,” He said. “While I was in the hospital more choppers came in bringing a bunch more of the wounded from our division.
“Being young, stupid and well trained I got off my cot, grabbed my rifle and flak jacket and found a chopper to take me back to my unit. Shortly after I got off the chopper I was running across an open field when two mortar rounds landed nearby and knocked me unconscious.
“They put me back on the same chopper that had taken me back to battle and flew me back to the same MASH hospital. I wasn’t hurt badly, I had a little shrapnel and was still unconscious.
“The same doctor who treated me the first time came over and looked at me once more. He said, ‘Do you have a brother?’ ‘No sir, it’s me again,’ I replied.
“‘Nice going,’ the doctor replied. ‘You’re going home. You have three Purple Hearts!'”
They sent him home to the USA.
“A lot of people say we’re heroes. We’re not heroes. We’re guys waiting to be heroes. The heroes are buried in Arlington,” that’s the way I look at it Kopec said.
It took him several weeks to make it back to San Diego, Calif. in a merchant ship. Then he lucked out.
“I was standing at the counter in the airport terminal in San Diego waiting to get a ticket to fly home to Chicago when the girl behind the counter said, ‘I think you’re in luck.’
“She herded several servicemen on their way to Chicago to a special flight to Chicago. I flew into Chicago on a private jet,” he recalled with a smile.
“When I got off the plane I called my father and he said he’d come get me immediately. I was waiting for my father to show up when two Chicago cops walked up and said to me, ‘Baby Killer, how you doing?’
“I was shocked. I wasn’t aware of the anti-war movement going on in this country. Then they told me, ‘We want to search your sea bag.’
“‘Not without a military person on hand you’re not.’ I told them. Right about then my dad walked up and said, ‘What’s going on?’
“He was a little Polish gentleman built like a bull. After huddling with the two policemen for a couple of minutes the cops said we could go, but make it quick.
“I spent the evening at home with my family. The next morning my mother came into my room and said, ‘Gene, You’d better go outside.’
“I walked out the front door and looked down our street. All our neighbors had American flags flying in front of their homes. There was a little sign next to each flag welcoming me home.
“I walked down our street with my mom and dad. Everybody came out of their homes and talked to me. They welcomed me back home. That was the best part of me coming home from Vietnam,” Kopec recalled half a lifetime later.
In the decades since he returned from war in Vietnam life has been tough for him.
He’s been married three times, suffered a debilitating stroke and every day has to cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“I had trouble holding onto jobs when I first got out of the Marines. For a while I worked as a maintenance man, I drove a truck and worked in construction. Nothing worked for me,” he said.
“After my stroke I could no longer work and I started having flashbacks from the war. I joined a PTSD support group in North Port that meets once a week at the city hall on Friday’s at 1 p.m.
“These guys have my back more than anybody in the whole world,” Kopec said. “Like many other veterans I went to the VA for some help and all I’ve gotten is the run around.”
Now he’s got a new problem. The home he rents with a swimming pool in North Port for $1,200 a month is being repossessed by the bank. He hasn’t been able to find a 3/2 with a pool so he can exercise and keep his war wounds from overwhelming him.
“I served my country. I did what I was asked to do in Vietnam,” Kopec said proudly.
The question he doesn’t ask, but wonders about: Why can’t his country step up to the plate for him in his time of need? And why can’t it step up to the plate for all the other hurting veterans in the USA?
Name: Gene R. Kopec
D.O.B: 9 Feb. 1946
Hometown: Chicago, Ill.
Currently: North Port, Fla.
Entered Service: 15 March 1968
Discharged: 9 March 1970
Unit: 3rd Marine Division
Commendations: Purple Heart w/2 Oak Leaf Clusters, National Defense medal, Vietnam Service medal, Vietnam Campaign medal, Good Conduct medal 2 awards, Sharpshooter badge
Battles/Campaigns: Khe Sanh
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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