A lifelong soldier, New Orleans native Ken Duncan served three tours of duty in Vietnam, five years in the Merchant Marines and three years in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Less than three weeks ago, he stood on the steps of Waveland City Hall in Mississippi. There, surrounded by family and friends almost 50 years since he first volunteered for duty, Duncan was finally presented with a Purple Heart by U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo.
Receiving it and several other medals has inspired him to make a special journey. Over the Memorial Day holidays, he planned to visit “The Wall” in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve been to the traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial twice,” Duncan said, “But I’ve never been to the real thing.” He has lived and traveled all over the world, and has family throughout St. Tammany. But this will be his first time to Washington, D.C.
Like seeing the nation’s capitol, he never worried about medals or recognition.
“I never cared about medals and things, but a few years ago as I was looking for an overseas position, I noticed that a Purple Heart recipient receives 10 points toward that position,” Duncan said. “So I contacted my veteran service officer and he found out that I had, in fact, been awarded it years ago.”
Duncan was awarded the medal for an injury he sustained during the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War.
“I was just back to start my third tour of duty in Vietnam and at 2:45 a.m., I heard the first three rounds hit inside our perimeter,” Duncan said. “From then on, we were under two weeks of nonstop attack.”
During the shelling, Duncan’s leg caught shrapnel from an 81 mm mortar.
Duncan was one of the lucky ones, a thought that was especially present when he recently stood to receive his medal.
“I guess it’s re-inspired me,” Duncan said. “I need to go and pay my respects to all those guys that didn’t make it back.”
When asked how many friends he lost, Duncan just hung his head and shook it slowly, choking up.
“You see these names, and you see your buddies,” he said. “That bond among soldiers, it can’t be broken. In fact, it’s so strong that sometimes one Vietnam vet can look over and just recognize another, without even speaking a word.”
Duncan’s lifetime involvement in the military began, he said, as a young boy.
“My brothers and I were fascinated with Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated combat soldiers of WWII,” he said. “We would take turns playing him.”
Duncan’s father owned Carpet World on Canal Street, and it was on this same street, at the old Customs building, that Duncan joined the Army at the age of 18. He immediately volunteered for Vietnam and began his first tour in 1966.
Each time they tried to reassign him, Duncan chose to stay in the war.
“By that time, I was committed to the South Vietnamese movement for democracy,” he said.
After his three tours were up, Duncan joined the Merchant Marines and, only three months later, found himself back in Vietnam, this time delivering bombs and ammunition to the troops until 1972.
Following the war, Duncan lived for a while in a temple in Korea where he studied a martial art called Kuk Sool Won. Eventually, he opened the practice’s first teaching facility in the United States in Gentilly.
As the years passed, Duncan served as a martial arts instructor, a Hollywood stuntman, a bouncer on Bourbon Street, a body guard, and did private security work.
“I went where the adrenaline rushes were,” he said, which included returning to the war, this time in Afghanistan, to serve as an Army contractor from 2004 to 2007.
“When you’re military, you’re military at heart,” he said.
Things nowadays have calmed down a bit for Duncan, but he stays busy refurbishing a Katrina-damaged home in Waveland, Mississippi, and occasional work for a local demolition company. He is also writing a book about the men and women that didn’t make it home, which he hopes to make into a movie.
“I like not knowing what’s around the next corner,” he said. “That excites me.”