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 Wednesday 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 will receive a hero's welcome at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock on Saturday when the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a service organization for combat-wounded veterans, plans to give 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 10 a.m. 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 after-work 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.
Saturday's event also will be 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.
Three Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers locations in Northwest Arkansas have designated spaces for Purple Heart recipients. Freddy Simon, for whom the chain is named, received a Purple Heart for injuries suffered in World War II.
The spaces are used often, said Tim Rheem, director of operation for 3Pointe Restaurant Group, the franchisee for the Freddy's locations in Northwest Arkansas. Customers often remark on the spaces, he added.
"The parking spots also bring veterans together who may not have known one another before eating at Freddy's," Rheem said. "Just the other day, I saw two gentlemen strike up a conversation in the parking lot and they ended up sitting together over lunch reminiscing about their years of service."
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 year-and-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."
Metro on 08/06/2017
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