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January 10, 2012 at 12:31 PM

Kirkland man awarded Purple Heart 42 years after Vietnam injury

It’s been 42 years since Sgt. Kent Clark’s helicopter was hit with heavy machine gun fire in Vietnam, but today he was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries to his knee during the mission.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Clark, 66, of Kirkland, holding his long-awaited medal Tuesday morning.

Kent Clark was awarded the Purple Heart by Sen. Patty Murray at the Federal Building in downtown Seattle. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Clark, 66, was a Specialist 4 in the Army and was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 1971. He eventually worked in the grocery business until his retirement; today he’s an assistant softball coach at Bothell High School.

Sen. Patty Murray awarded Clark the medal in a ceremony at the Federal Office Building attended by about 30 of his family and friends. He’s previously been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his role in saving the lives of six men, as well as two Air Medals for his service.

After an aircraft commander urged Clark to dig up the paperwork necessary for the Purple Heart, awarded to those wounded in combat, his daughter, Bethany Clark, contacted Murray’s office in August.

Murray said the award was important to Vietnam veterans, who returned to antiwar sentiment in the 70s.

Clark joined the Army in June 1968 after being drafted, and served in Phan Thiet, Vietnam, for a year beginning in December 1968. Originally an ammunition specialist spending his days loading rockets, he said he grew bored. He ended up flying more than 50 missions.

Wearing a button-down shirt and khakis, a stoic Clark stood to receive the medal, awarded by Murray with the help of his 18-year-old grandson, Chaz Evers. He cracked a smile twice: once when Murray mentioned his boredom on base that led him into the thick of the war, and again when she mentioned the motto of his company, nicknamed the Tiger Sharks: “You call, we maul.”

The Nov. 21, 1969, mission that wounded Clark, who was serving as a door gunner, is still vivid in his mind.

“I still remember the exact coordinates,” Clark said, recalling the big red bullets flying toward his helicopter. “I don’t know how we flew back 4,000 meters.”

Three of the men on board, including Clark, were injured; the other two received Purple Hearts for their injuries.

Unlike the other two, Clark didn’t go to the doctor for his injuries until a few days later, leading him to believe he wasn’t eligible for the award. When the helicopter’s Plexiglas shattered and cut his face during the onslaught, he said he didn’t even notice.

“Someone said, ‘You’re bleeding,’” he remembered. “I said, ‘I am?’”

Clark’s daughter, Bethany Clark, who worked to get the award, was beaming Tuesday.

“It means everything to me. I’m so proud,” said daughter Bethany, 28, of Kenmore. “After 42 years, he’s finally getting what he deserves.”

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