After more than 50 years, the story of Patrick Mickeal McKenney is bittersweet.
Bitter that he died in Vietnam in 1967 at age 20. Sweet because he is remembered as a hero and an inspiration down to a third generation.
A trunk containing many of his military-related possessions was handed down to his 15-year-old great-nephew, Thomas Milton of Kentwood, La., who hopes to join the Marines someday.
“This was my brother’s trunk, his personal trunk,” said McKenney’s sister Corliss Morgan of McComb. “My mother (the late Vescie McKenney) had it for many years and it was something she didn’t want to take out and have us look through it.”
The trunk contains a miscellany of official military records and private correspondence, photos and other memorabilia.
Mickeal was one of eight siblings. He followed in his older brother James’ footsteps in joining the Marines. James retired as a colonel and now lives in Virginia.
Mickeal went to Vietnam in 1965 and was killed less than two years later, in February 1967.
According to a news article in the Enterprise-Journal, “He was in numerous operations in the conflict and was in the last he was scheduled to be in before returning home when he was killed Monday (McComb time; the 28th in Vietnam).
“He had received several awards for his gallantry in action and for wounds he had incurred, one shortly after he reached Vietnam.”
The Marine Corps notification said PFC McKenney died in Quang Tri Province from “multiple fragmentation wounds to the chest ... from a hostile explosive device,” or booby-trap.
However, in 2012, a fellow Marine posted a different account on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall of Faces website:
“I was there with Patrick McKenney on that day. He was not killed by a booby trap. We were surrounded and under assault when he was struck by incoming mortar round fragments. He died fighting trying to protect the Marines next to him. He is still missed.”
“He was due home in 10 days,” Morgan said. “He did make it home in 10 days, but in a casket.
“He was ambushed. He died standing in front of his platoon of men taking the bullets for them so they would live. He was a hero to us. He said he would come home a hero or he would come home dead. He’s a hero to his family.”
Before his death, McKenney sent his family a tape recording updating them on his situation.
“In listening to him talk, you could hear a quiver in his voice and you could hear gunshots,” Morgan said.
The family was in the process of making him a tape in return when they got a phone call from Father John McNamara of St. Alphonsus Catholic Church, whom the Marines had asked to break the news of McKenney’s death.
“I won’t ever forget that phone call from Father McNamara to my father, telling him to come over to see him,” Morgan said. “That was the very first time I ever saw my dad cry.”
Fast-forward 52 years, and her grandson Thomas is looking forward to his own service in the Marines.
“I’m very proud of my grandson, and he loves to visit around the neighborhood and talk to my neighbors who are military,” Morgan said.
Thomas has already read extensively on Vietnam and other wars.
“Any American war I can tell you a good summary of it,” Thomas said. “I’ve probably been wanting to join the Marines since I was about 10 years old. A lot of my family was in the military.”
Thomas considers the Marine Corps to be the best of the best.
“Their impact on every American war has been great,” he said. “Their training is unlike any other. It’s no longer ‘me, I or myself.’ It’s ‘we, our or us.’ It’s based on teamwork.
“Their physical training is brutal because they want the strength to fight. Anybody that’s ever served in the Marines will tell you it’s had a big impact on their life. They want to break you down and build you back up. The Marines — that’s where the tough of the tough go. That’s where the will-do men go,” he said.
Thomas attends Sumner High School and plans to go to college before enrolling in the Marines.
“I feel like it’s my duty to join the Marines and do my service because my two great-uncles were Marines,” he said.
He feels that way even though one great-uncle was killed in combat and the other suffers debilitating health effects from Agent Orange, the herbicide used to defoliate Vietnamese jungles.
“Everything’s got a danger. Everything’s got a risk,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to live life on the edge sometimes. They did their time. They’re seen as heroes. They gave their life up. They should get the utmost respect.
“For me, going to take that risk is a risk I’m willing to take.”