There was a time when many people in the United States of America turned their backs on Kenneth Hodges. But, there has never been a moment in the last forty eight years when Kenneth Hodges ever dreamed of turning his back on the United States of America. Called a “baby-killer” and a “murderer,” Kenneth Hodges had good reasons to feel anger, to furiously lash out at those who assaulted him with hate and looked away in pathetic apathy. Instead, Kenneth Hodges sought out a higher power, one who gave him a special mission to serve his country. And, thirty seven years later, he is still carrying out that personal mission with eternal pride and with gracious honor, giving back to those veterans who have also served our country.
AN HONORABLE WAY
As Kenneth Hodges walked off the stage with his diploma from B.D. Perry High School in his hand, he knew that serving in the military would be an honorable way. He had an uncle, Hubert Mathis, who had been in the Army. He thought to himself that he wanted to make the military a career. So, he enlisted in the Army, just three weeks after graduation in 1963.
His values of country, honor, and doing right had been ingrained into Kenneth since he was a young boy by his mother, Mrs. Pauline Mathis Hodges, and his father, J. Richard Hodges. Mrs. Hodges began her teaching career in one-room school houses. In her thirty-five years of teaching school, Mrs. Hodges taught in churches which were specially outfitted for classes and the old Buckeye Junior High School, before teaching at B.D. Perry School on Highway 319. Mrs. Hodges ended her career as a teacher at East Laurens Primary School in the early 1970s.
Kenneth entered the infantry and was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment of the 11th Brigade of the 23rd (Americal) Division. As one of the division’s crack units after training at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, the 20th regiment was sent to the Province of Quang Ngai, one of the most pro-Viet Cong provinces of South Vietnam.
The Americal Division had taken many casualties since its arrival in November 1967. As many as one third of the losses came from booby traps and mines, many of which were set by civilians sympathetic to the Viet Cong cause.
Charlie Company suffered its worst casualties on February 25, 1968. Captain Ernest Medina was awarded the Silver Star for his actions in rescuing his men. Medina and many field grade officers demanded that their men keep up an all out attack on the Viet Cong and their sympathizers. Regimental planners formulated a plan to clear the villages of My Lai of all Viet Cong.
March 16, 1968: Hodges recalled, “The morning of the 16th started early. The mood was sort of somber, but there was an edge of excitement.” Hodges said in a 1989 Frontline documentary, “We knew we were going into something big and we were gonna deal with them.” Normally a rifleman carried 180 rounds of ammo. Hodges remembered, “We were instructed to pack a triple basic load of ammunition. So we were expecting great resistance in that village.”
Hodges and the other squad leaders were guiding their men into position to move out. “It was quite clear that no one was to be spared in that village, Hodges said, “The orders meant killing small kids, killing women, because they were soldiers,” he added. The men of Charlie Company knew that refusing to carry out an order could result in punishment. Twenty-one years after the incident, Hodges recalled, “If one of my men had refused to shoot, I shudder to think what have been the repercussions. It's hard to say now what I would have done, looking back. At the time that it actually happened, he would have been in serious trouble.”
In justifying his actions at My Lai, Hodges, in the Frontline documentary, said, “As a professional soldier, I had been taught to carry out the orders and at no time did it ever cross my mind to disobey or to refuse to carry out an order that was issued by my superiors.” His soldiers were trained that way. “It's either you or the enemy, and the people who were in that village, the women, the little kids, the old men, were all considered the enemy,” he said. Sgt. Hodges taught his soldiers how to deal with the enemy when they came face to face with him. “They are trained to be killers,” he added.”
In a 2010 American Experience documentary, Hodges, some forty-two years after My Lai, maintained that he and the others were following orders. “You train a man to soldier, you take him out of civilian life, you teach him to be a soldier, you train him to follow orders, you express to him the importance of following orders, and you train him to kill,” the former sergeant maintained.
“After the My Lai operation and we returned to base camp, Captain Medina told us do not answer any questions from anyone, news reporters or anybody else, about this last mission,” Hodges remembered. “Other units had experienced similar things, they had carried out similar operations. For some reason or another, it started off with a soldier sharing something with someone else who wasn’t there. And, that person sharing it with someone else, who happened to be a friend of that guy. It sort of mushroomed from there and then someone decided that his conscience won’t let him rest until justice was done,” he added.
Charges of murder and rape were lodged and dismissed against Sgt. Hodges. Lt. William Calley, the platoon commander, was the only person found guilty in the action at My Lai. None of the field grade officers who planned the operation were ever charged. Despite the fact that he was cleared, the United States Army discharged Sgt. Kenneth Hodges from the service.
Kenneth Hodges desperately wanted to remain in the Army and serve his country. After he got out of the service, Kenneth lived in Columbus, Georgia for a couple of years. Those years were spent hoping against hope that the Army was going reinstate him and take him back in. With the help of a lawyer, Frank Martin over in Columbus, Hodges took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. “But, I lost out,” the ten-year veteran looked back.
Hodges believes there is still a segment of society that Vietnam still rests on their minds. Not just the veterans, but people who are just ordinary citizens. “The full story, the incidents which led up to My Lai - a lot of people don’t talk about them, because a lot of people don’t know about them. As I relate the story to people, they say, “I didn’t know all of that took place. I never heard that.” Because, what happened before would shed a lot of light on why things went down like they did at My Lai.”
THEY CALLED THEM THE DREGS OF SOCIETY
“With the things that I went through and after and during the trial, I was recommended for a general court martial. It did not go that far. During that period, it was pretty dark. “Public sentiment turned, it was already out there, Vietnam vets were baby killers and more or less dregs of society,” Hodges expounded.
Hodges’ unit was considered the best of the brigade in their training operations in Hawaii, so much so that they were the advance party to go over first. Hodges said, “Once the news came out a year and half later, even the army said we were undertrained and undereducated. Which was hardly the case. We had been undereducated. Some of them did have low IQs. But that was not our fault, they were drafted. If you have ever seen the movie Forrest Gump, I saw first hand “Forrest Gump.”
Hodges was referring to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s 100,000 project, in which the military openly ignored intelligence test results in drafting and enlisting soldiers. “These soldiers were good soldiers because of the repetition in their training. Tthey could pick it up. And, because they were of a simple mind, following orders was something they understood,” Hodges maintains. “So after their experiences in Vietnam, they had a hard time dealing with what they saw and what they experienced,” the former sergeant added.
In general, Hodges felt that many in the country turned their backs on the Vietnam veteran. He recalled the story, “When the news broke about the things, the trial, my mother, who grew up teaching school in Laurens County and on the east side of the river, was shunned. None of her friends, or so called friends, even called and offered words of encouragement or words of consolation. But a woman whom she had never met, a white lady, called and said, ‘I cooked a cake. I want you to put on a pot of coffee. I know you must be going through something now.’” It was those things that were “heartwarming, touching and uplifting” to Kenneth Hodges. Those were the exceptions, and not the rule.
One touching exception to that rule came during the holidays at the end of Hodges’ first of his two tours of duty in Vietnam. Hodges was returning home when he was at the Atlanta Airport awaiting a layover flight to Macon before taking a taxi to Dublin to surprise his family, who didn’t know he was coming home for the holidays. “While I was waiting for the plane to fly to Macon, I was browsing in one of the shops there and I came upon this one white couple and the lady greeted me. I was in uniform and we started talking. She said, ‘Are you in the army?’ Yes, I said. She said, ‘Well, where have you just come from, where are you going?’ I said, I am going home for the holidays. She said, ‘Where are you coming from?’ I said, from Vietnam,” he recalled.
“A look of surprise came over her and she excitedly said, ‘You are home from Vietnam?’ I said, yes. She called her husband over and she said, ‘Honey, this soldier returned from Vietnam and he is going to be home for Thanksgiving and for Christmas.’ He looked me in the eye and with tears in his eyes said, ‘Thank you for doing my part. I couldn’t go. I have health problems. I was listed and categorized as F4 - unfit for military service. Thank you for doing my part.’ He hugged me and his wife hugged me. That stands out as one of the high points of returning from Vietnam,” he concluded. Hodges recalled that other than a welcome from his family, there were hardly any welcome homes or any thank yous.
A NEW BEGINNING, A NEW MISSION
“One morning I woke up with a thought that I needed to find a new direction. I needed to make a new beginning,” Kenneth said as felt that his new beginning should be back in Dublin and that he could turn his life around at home. He was drifting, going no where in a hurry, dealing with alcoholism and his problems with the military. Hodges saw his problems were not being corrected and were not going to be corrected in Columbus. In early 1975, Hodges made a fateful decision, packed his bags and came home to find his new beginning. All he had was his family, himself, and his faith in God.
Hodges never gave any thought to working at the VA until he met Grady Phillips. Phillips asked Hodges had he ever thought about working at the VA hospital. “That’s when the light went on. I said, wow!. That’s a great idea,” Hodges fondly recalled.
He gives credit to those who stepped up for him and embraced him. One of them was E.B. Smith, the union president and a veteran. “He had no requirement to help me as I was a temporary employee. He was a caring individual,” Hodges added. Bob Willis was another who came to assist Hodges in his quest to become a permanent employee. Willis went to the director, Harold Duncan, and pleaded with him to give Hodges a chance.
Willis declared, “I wish we had hundreds of employees like Kenneth.” I was so impressed with him, I went to the Harold Duncan, the director, and plead his case for permanent employment. I told him that he wouldn’t regret it. In my years at the VA, Kenneth did an outstanding job and we never had any complaints about the way he did his job. He is a fine man.”
Hodges’ application was bogging down in the bowels of the bureaucracy. In the first round of testing he received a very low score. He had completed high school, a year of college and trade school. Hodges, naturally frustrated at the endless delays asked a VA official, “What am I supposed to do to make a living, rob a bank? I can’t get on at the VA. This is crazy!” Hodges grabbed some sheets of paper and wrote out his case. The official took them to the board and plead his case. With his veteran’s preference, Hodges scored a 99 and got a permanent job in housekeeping.
Working early on in the kitchen, the laundry, Hodges kept looking for a more fulfilling position. In late 1977, a job was announced on the board for a motor vehicle operator. “The more I dug into it, the more I learned what motor vehicle operators do. They transport patients, veterans to other VA facilities, clinics and nursing homes. And these veterans come from our service area, which includes 59 counties surrounding Dublin. The idea came to my mind that this was a way to reach other veterans who may be experiencing similar problems.” Hodges remarked. Not long after he got the job a Seventh Day Adventist minister, who worked in the laundry, kept telling Hodges, “That’s your job. God has work for you to do in that job.”
Hodges does the things he does for veterans because it gives him a sense of accomplishment. “It gives me a good feeling - a giving back to those who gave to me when I was coming along struggling. When I started at the VA, it was hard getting on permanently. I managed to get on to a temporary assignment, but getting a permanent assignment proved to be a challenge,” he maintained.
Over the last thirty-three years, Hodges estimates that he has driven more than one million miles in transporting veterans. “I had veterans usually going to Augusta or Decatur, two to three hours. I had them and I had their attention. They couldn’t get away. So they were trapped with me. I could talk to them. There were veterans who had similar problems to what I had, especially Vietnam veterans. Some of them were younger. Some of them were older. I saw that they were going through the same problems that I was going through with PTSD dealing with every day problems after you got back, still making adjustments from being in the war. It gave me a great opportunity. It still gives me a great opportunity, because now I am seeing younger veterans coming from Iraq and from Afghanistan. They are suffering from similar problems and I am able to share my experiences with them and what I learned about PTSD, and ways to deal with it and cope with it.” he said.
Hodges counts the number of veterans which he has helped to be in the tens of thousands. “I am interacting with them in someway, talking with them about different things, different aspects of their lives - the things that they are going through. The assistance that I give some of them is just talk and advice - some of them, just a listening ear,” he says.
During the period between 1982 to the early 1990s Hodges was on the road to Augusta everyday, sometimes twice a day and even three times in one day. “ One Saturday, I had a scheduled transfer. When I got back from that one, I had an emergency. When I got back from that one, I had another emergency. The other two drivers were out sick, so I drove 600 miles within a twenty-four period in three trips to Augusta.” he remarked.
Hodges also takes veterans to get their driver’s licenses and IDs. Although his primary mission is to make sure the patients get transportation for medical treatment he finds a lot of guys coming in with their pockets empty. With no public transportation available, he makes sure that veterans can take care of their of the business during their stay at the VA Hospital. He took one man out to get a driver’s license for his van. He got it even though he lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. “That really blew my mind. He is a Vietnam veteran. He lost both legs and an arm. I saw him in Atlanta and he was driving,” he fondly recalled.
An old friend, whom Kenneth met at Fort Benning back in the early 70s, called him. He was crying. The friend had been receiving bad treatment from his co-workers. “He was on the verge of doing something foolish. He called me and said there was going to be homicide or a suicide. I don’t know which,” said Kenneth, who told his friend, “It sounds like PTSD has set in on you.” This was in the early 90s, the mid 90s. Today he is on the road to receiving the help that he needs and getting the counseling he needs for the PTSD as well as other physical problems.
GIVE AND YE SHALL RECEIVE
Time and time again in his life, Kenneth Hodges has seen that giving back to others brings blessings back to the giver ten fold. He does good deeds not for any hope of reward nor recognition. Not one to blow his own horn, Hodges related the story of a veteran who had been sleeping under a bridge for two months and drinking whenever he could. After deciding that the vet wanted to come in and get cleaned up, Hodges transported him from Augusta to Dublin to be admitted to the detox ward. “The clothes that he had a stench in them - you could hardly stand it riding in the van. When I got back to Dublin, I took all of his clothes, everything that he had, which was in two large plastic bags. I took it home and washed them, dried them, and returned them to him fresh,” he recalled.
Hodges realizes that there are many people around town who don’t seek or want recognition for the acts of charity and kindness. He tells the story of a young lady who worked at the VA. Her estranged boyfriend slashed all of her tires. Her fellow employees raised $270.00 to help her buy new tires. Kenneth picked up the phone and phoned a friend, who was a local tire dealer. He told the man of the lady’s predicament. The dealer said, “Kenneth, as I have always told you if you need anything call me.” Hodges told the dealer what had happened. He said, “You’ve got $270?” Hodges said, “yes.” The dealer said, “Let me call you back in five minutes.” “He called me in three,” Hodges said. The tire shop owner asked, “You’ve got $270 and you want these tires mounted and balanced?” Hodges told the man, “I know it is a tall request,” to which the dealer responded, “The cheapest tire I have got is $325 for the set and that doesn’t include mounting and balancing, but bring me that $270.”
That tire dealer, as you may have guessed by now, was Hodges’ fellow good deed doer, Scott Beasley of Duncan Tire Company. When asked about Kenneth Hodges, Beasley smiled excitedly and said, “ You mean Kenneth Hodges, he is Dublin’s hero! Beasley declared, “Kenneth Hodges has a heart as big as the helmet that the soldier’s wear.” Beasley remembered watching the American Experience documentary on My Lai when all of sudden he recognized his old friend. He exclaimed, “That’s Kenneth!,” as his heart swelled with pride and admiration.
Hodges remembered meeting a couple in Augusta while waiting to return a patient home. He had known them in the years in which they ran a variety store on I-16 in Dublin. The man was suffering from an aneurism. The lady was recovering from cancer. While the couple were in Augusta, they had a flat tire. The lady was trying to call for a mechanic to come and change or repair their tire. That’s when Kenneth Hodges stepped in.
The man told his wife to hang up the phone and that help was on the way. Puzzled, the lady responded, “They are here already here? I didn’t get a chance to talk.” The man said, “No, Kenneth is here to change the tire.” Kenneth refused the lady’s financial reward. When Hodges got back to Dublin, the couple had already called his supervisor, Freddie Smith. Smith told the chief, who within a matter of days, presented a “Caring Award” to Hodges. He had a choice between a meal for four at a Macon restaurant or a fifty-dollar savings bond. Hodges laughed, “I said, “I know how to cook, give me the savings bond!”.
The list of good deeds goes on and on. There too many to list and too many which have never been told nor were expected to be known or publicly appreciated outside of those who received his generous aid.
THE SWEET TASTE IS STILL THERE
Kenneth Hodges has been serving our country for more than two thirds of his sixty six years. And, he has no plans to stop any time soon. He has no goal of fifty or fifty-five years. “I tell folks when they question me about my retirement. It’s like a piece of gum that you stick in your mouth, the sweet taste is still there,” Hodges said.
On almost every morning, Kenneth Hodges stills looks forward to getting up and going to work, facing new challenges and meeting new people, talking to them and sharing his experiences, and trying to shed some light on how they can better themselves. He unequivocally stated, “There are lot more opportunities now for the Afghanistan and Iraqi veterans than there were for the Vietnam veterans.”
Kenneth Hodges relishes in doing what he can to carry out the programs that the VA has as well as his own program of assisting the veterans and encouraging them by giving them the courage to continue on with what they are doing. Hodges insists that the veterans whom he meets continue to get an education. He challenges them not to give up on their dreams. “If they have something they want to do, pursue it,” Hodges declared.
”They are more warmly received. And, that does not bother me. Some people have problems dealing with that, but that was another time and another place,” Hodges commented on how he and other Vietnam vets were treated four decades ago.
From time to time, Kenneth Hodges interacts with female veterans. Some of them have dependence problems, and sadly some of the women are homeless. To the young veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, Hodges encourages them to seek a higher power. “If you don’t want to call it God, seek a higher power, like an AA commitment,” he tells young veterans. He shares with them his own guidance from God in overcoming his problems. “I looked to God for my guidance and to get to me through it,” Hodges asserted.
There were no parades, no ceremonies, not hardly a single celebration when Kenneth Hodges and other Vietnam veterans came home to the United States. But, it is not too late to welcome those who served. Hodges, himself now finds himself instinctively thanking the Vietnam veterans he meets for their service to our country.
Just five years ago, Hodges, wearing a cap indicating the he was a veteran of the Vietnam War, was at a convenience store gassing up his vehicle. He noticed a young veteran in his late twenties. The young man walked directly toward him and looked him straight in the eye. He stuck out his hand and said, “Thank you for your service to our country and welcome home.” Hodges said, “I was shocked at his actions, and I said what did you say? I had to hear it again.” The young man repeated, “Thank you for your service to our country. Welcome home, Vietnam veterans didn’t get a lot of that” Hodges was so touched that he began to cry.
When he meets a Vietnam veteran because of his insignia on his cap or what he is wearing which sets him apart, Hodges will greet him, “I don’t have to know him. I will just walk up to him and extend my hand, shake his hand, and welcome him home and thank him for his service to his country,” he maintains as most of them have the same reaction that he did.
Hodges says that the citizens of our community can help veterans who are now returning by embracing them and welcoming them home. “Give them some support and listen to them. Some of them are reluctant to share their stories,” he says. As for himself, sharing his story is therapy. He feels that so many people are in the dark as far as the Vietnam veteran, what he is and who he is. “We are a cross section of society of that period. We are no more and we are no less than the others are. It’s just that we served in an unpopular war. And, when it was over, there was not a win involved. We sort of tucked our tails between our legs and walked off,” he concluded.
A BAD MOVIE
Kenneth Hodges has fought many fights in his life. And, like his second-cousin, six-time world champion boxer “Sugar Ray” Robinson, he has won most of them. In commenting on his struggles and the triumph of his faith, Hodges says, “Sometimes life is like a bad movie. You keep on watching it and hope it will turn out good.”
Kenneth Hodges never really liked bad endings. His sister, Frenchy Hodges, remembered the days of their youth when they and their siblings, Marva, Larue, and Joe Richard, Jr., were working in the fields along side their farmer father, Joe Richard Hodges, Sr. Frenchy, a nationally recognized poetess and story teller, often made up stories, some of which had sad endings. “Kenneth has always been a sensitive and caring man,” said Ms. Hodges. “When he began to cry after hearing my stories, I would say, ‘No, the story really doesn’t end that way,” and I would change the story to add a happy ending to cheer him up,” Hodges happily recalled.
Many years ago Hodges learned that words can hurt and words can heal. “A lot of times you don’t know the impact of what you do or what you say will have on some people. Sometimes you’ll never know,” he says. He was reminded about a story of a professor who assigned his psychology students the task of telling someone what they meant to them. As he rushed through his own busy schedule, the professor forgot that he himself was supposed to complete the assignment. He went to his son’s room and told him just how much he appreciated what his son had done to help around the house and how proud of him he was for his good grades and how much he loved him. The boy began to sob uncontrollably. When asked what was wrong, the son said, “Dad, I didn’t think you had even noticed me period, or even noticed what I did around the house. I didn’t think you even noticed my grades or anything I did in school. That was why tomorrow morning, I planned to kill myself.”
That story got Kenneth to thinking that sometimes you say things that are ugly or hurting to people that you want to strike out. And, they can really hurt people. It made him think the angry and bitter words should stop coming out of his mouth.
There was a period there when he could pass it out freely, especially if you crossed his path. “I tell the guys sometimes that I used to be a revolving SOB and I loved it,” Hodges admits. One guy said, “What is a revolving SOB?” Hodges said, “Any way that I turned, I was one. It was nothing that I was proud of.” After Vietnam, Hodges didn’t realize what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was. “It manifests itself in people’s minds. One of the effects is anger and not necessarily at anyone or anybody. Just anger. But since I have been at the VA, I have met a half dozen people who have shared their stories about anger,” he said.
After listening to veterans, Hodges realized that he too had some of that anger. “I realized that the angrier you get, the more excited and the more you like it. And, that is dangerous. That’s a part of that transformation. I turned it around. I said, no, no, you don’t want to go back there,” he recollected.
Kenneth Hodges gives all the credit for turning his life around to God. “The Master, the man upstairs. He showed it to me and let me see it vividly, vividly. I said, no, no, I don’t want to go back there.” He urges all veterans to get help from the VA. He shares his story of overcoming turmoil in his life through his faith in God and his God-given love he has for his fellow veterans.
And today, you’ll still find Kenneth Hodges after almost a half century of serving his country, still serving the country and the veterans whom he never turned his back on. While not working at the VA on or the road, you may find him at home, doing what he loves to do, cooking a delicious meal and enjoying life with this wife Margaret. Sometimes he closes his eyes and watches himself starring in a bad biographical movie which is now showing the good parts. And, it looks like there will be a wonderful and oh so happy ending.
Welcome home, Sergeant Kenneth Hodges! Thank you for your service to our country.