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After nearly losing feet, Vietnam vet grateful for belated public support

Dennis J. Kulczyk had hoped to become an electrician after graduating from Boys Vocational High School back in the early 1960s, but jobs were few in his trade.

So he instead worked at N.L. Kaplan, one of Buffalo's biggest furriers. His duties included picking up fur coats for summer storage and placing them in a sprawling refrigerated vault inside a downtown Perry Street building.

"You had to wear a coat yourself when you went into the vault to store the furs, it was so cold" he said.

But when he was drafted into the Army, he would have no need for a coat, not where Uncle Sam sent  him.

"After basic training, I was sent to Hawaii and I thought it would be a nice thing. I was tinkled pink. I didn't realize I was being trained for jungle combat."

Kulczyk and other members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, had the distinction of being among the very first ground troops to set foot in Vietnam on Jan. 1, 1966.

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Dennis J. Kulczyk, 74
Hometown: Buffalo
Residence: Orchard Park
Branch: Army
Rank: specialist E-4
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: 1964 - 1966
Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge, Republic of Vietnam Medal
Specialty: infantry

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"The only other people ahead of us were machine gunners and pilots who volunteered to serve on helicopters," he said. "We were living in pup tents in the beginning while a home base at Pleiku was being built up for us."

Within the first few days of their arrival, soldiers were going out on patrols into the dense jungles and fighting, Kulczyk said.

"Reality doesn't hit you until the bullets start flying over your head," he said.

The enemy proved ferocious.

"When you would shoot somebody in the chest, he would still keep coming at you. You had to shoot them in the head so they would drop. The enemy was known to drug themselves up before going into combat," Kulczyk said.

And while the enemy was dropping, so were Americans.

"From the time I was there, three-quarters of my company was either killed or wounded, and that's a lot of guys," Kulczyk said.

Serving in the tropics of Vietnam was a departure from Dennis J. Kulczyk's job back in Buffalo putting furs in cold storage. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The sacrifices of his fellow soldiers on an almost daily basis provided a stark contrast to the growing anti-war sentiment back home. Kulczyk said he read about the war protests in The Buffalo Evening News articles his family mailed him. At one point he was so frustrated that he wrote a letter to editor at The News asking why Americans were not supporting the war.

The paper turned the letter into a news story that was published on April 28, 1966, with the headline, "Buffalo infantryman plea for support of Viet War."

In the article, Kulczyk stated: "I am a draftee. As most of the men say, I was forced into the service but that doesn't relieve me of my responsibility as an American. I feel that some people back in the states are trying to shirk their duties as Americans by being against the government Vietnam policy."

Kulczyk says he cannot recall if there was any feedback for or against his patriotic missive.

But what he has not forgotten is that exactly one month after the story was published, he was wounded.

"We were flown in by helicopter to help another patrol caught in an ambush. That night the Viet Cong broke through our line and we had a firefight through the night," he said. "In the morning when it all subsided, we were doing a sweep of the area and we walked into an ambush.

"I hit the ground and was fighting from a prone position when the enemy sprayed the area and I was shot through both ankles. There was a guy next to me and I said, 'Bandage my foot, bandage my foot.'

"But he froze and I remember lying there a long, long time. I was in so much pain. I said to myself, 'Just shoot me again to get me out of the pain.'

"I thought, 'I just can't lie here' and I started crawling, and all I remember is another guy picking me up and putting me across his shoulders. At this point, I am hallucinating from so much loss of blood and I thought this guy is picking me up and using me as a shield. But it was the medics flown in and picking up the wounded."

Aboard a helicopter bound for a field hospital, Kulczyk graphically recalled looking at his wounded feet.

"When I moved them, the blood would squirt up like a water fountain. I wasn't bandaged up yet."

His wounds were so severe that doctors informed him his feet might have to be amputated.

"I was sent to a hospital on one of the islands for a short time, and then I was flown to Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania, where doctors saved my feet."

Over the years, Kulczyk says he has had a number of additional reconstructive surgeries at the VA Western New York Health Care Center on Bailey Avenue.

And yet despite his physical challenges, he worked for decades managing different area taverns and raised two sons.

He says he cannot forget the war. Pain is the reminder.

"I am in constant pain from my wounds, but it is something that I have learned to deal with and the VA has helped me immensely."

As for the lack of support Vietnam veterans experienced during the height of the anti-war movement, Kulczyk says he is grateful it is now a distant memory.

"I wear a Purple Heart combat baseball cap and people are always thanking me for my service. Sometimes they buy me lunch or if I'm in Starbucks coffee," he said.

But one of  his greatest honors, particularly since he is of Polish ancestry, was the recent presentation of the "Stanley Blake Memorial Award" for his "outstanding sacrifice, courage and patriotism." It was presented to him at the General Pulaski Association's annual installation dinner in Cheektowaga.

And among those who paid tribute to Kulczyk was Cheektowaga Town Justice Paul S. Piotrowski, who stressed how important it is to recognize Vietnam veterans, especially those who were Purple Heart recipients. The judge also offered an apology "for what was not given them" so long ago – a homecoming of gratitude.

The evening brought tears to Kulczyk's eyes.

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