EVERETT — In January 1968, U.S. troops in Vietnam were surprised by attacks during what was supposed to be a cease fire during the Tet Lunar New Year celebration.
Marine Corps Cpl. Ken Comley, a young guy from California, was near Da Nang when he was hit by shrapnel from a shell that exploded and killed a lieutenant just in front of him. Comley’s right side was ripped open.
“It was the worst fighting of the war. You didn’t know who your enemy was,” Comley said. “You would be friendly with a kid on the street and he would turn out to be Viet Cong.”
Today, Comley, 67, is the volunteer veteran service officer for the Military Order of the Purple Heart at the Everett Vets Center. He helps veterans, many of them who also served in Vietnam, fill out the claims paperwork for their military benefits. He listens to combat stories. He understands.
For Comley, Veterans Day is a sad day of remembrance and a solemn holiday. He thinks about all the guys who didn’t make it home — people from so many military conflicts and wars around the world during the past 95 years since the first Armistice Day. He thinks about the combat veterans who suffer with physical and mental health problems which are a result of their service experiences.
He remembers his own time in Vietnam.
After his shrapnel wounds were patched up by a surgical team, Comley was sent back out to an area near Khe Sanh, Vietnam, to perform his jobs as electrician and rifleman. He was sent home in July 1968 and served another six months at Camp Pendleton, and was discharged honorably as a sergeant.
“Then I went to college, but I wondered what I was doing there. My hands would shake as I sat in class,” Comley said. “I had felt safe in the Marine Corps. That’s where I grew up and developed my ethical standards.”
Comley eventually landed a job with the Los Angeles Police Department, where he worked as a uniformed officer and later as a detective. After 21 years with the department, he took a job as an air marshal. When he and his wife of 45 years, moved to Mukilteo, he went to work as a special agent for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
As the years wore on, Comley’s war wounds came back to haunt him. There were skin problems caused by the chemicals used in combat, such as Agent Orange. More debilitating was the nerve damage, which became progressively degenerative. After 10 back surgeries, Comley is now a paraplegic in wheelchair.
“I can’t fish or hunt anymore, but I still like to travel,” Comley said. “And I love serving these vets.”
Each Monday, Comley volunteers six hours at the Vets Center to work with at least six people. They include widows of World War II veterans and young people just returning from Afghanistan.
“My police background helps me write the narratives needed for some of the paperwork,” Comley said. “I have a soft spot for these folks. They deserve everything coming to them.”
Fellow Vets Center volunteer Arthur Ebert, a Gulf War veteran, said Comley’s empathetic nature is appealing to those who work there and to those who come seeking help.
“Ken brings a lot to this job,” Ebert said. “We’re glad to have a Purple Heart vet working here.”
Comley said he is proud of his Purple Heart. He meets monthly with other Purple Heart veterans at a meeting in Lynnwood.
“It’s a prestigious medal, but nobody wants to get wounded or die in order to receive one,” he said. “Throughout the years, what happens to people in combat doesn’t change. Post traumatic stress disorder is very real. Most combat veterans have at least some level of PTSD.”
On this Veterans Day, Comley offered up some advice to people who aren’t military veterans.
“Remember to be tolerant and respectful of veterans, and remember that they have been to hell and back,” Comley said. “After the Vietnam era, I think our country learned a lesson, and I am happy to say that the current veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are treated better. I think we paved the way. There’s nothing good about war, but we tried to make it better for the next vets.”
For information about the Everett Vets Center, call 425-252-9701.
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.