Working as a clerk for an insurance company in Manhattan, 21-year-old Robert J. Kenefic was earning money to resume his college education.
But he ran out of cash while studying at Iona College and did not want to take out loans. So he found work. Then Uncle Sam found him.
By way of a draft notice, Kenefic embarked on a different kind of education. It left him shaking his head over how “crazy” the Army operated and, later, shaking over the abrupt loss of combat buddies in Vietnam.
“I was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. We trained in the snow up in Massachusetts,” he said, amazed at how the Army prepared the brigade to fight in a tropical war zone.
When his 3,000-member unit departed for Vietnam, Kenefic said the Army again defied logic.
“We boarded two World War II troop ships in Boston Harbor. Most of the other people being sent to Vietnam took the train across the country to the West Coast or flew. But the Army wanted to keep us all together and put us on ships. We’d never heard of anybody going by boat to Vietnam,” he said.
The voyage turned out to be a good thing.
“We spent 30 days on the ships, including three days’ passage through the Panama Canal,” he said. “I later learned that those 30 days counted as time in Vietnam. That meant instead of 12 months, the enemy only had 11 months to shoot at us.”
And shoot they did.
“Twice those son-of-a-pups tried to kill me,” Kenefic said of wounds that earned him two Purple Heart medals.
On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 1966, Kenefic suffered burns when defending an Army base in the Tay Ninh region.
“A bunch of Viet Cong were attacking us in the evening. They were shooting rifles and we were firing back with 106 mm recoil-less rifles. They’re like cannons mounted on Jeeps. It was hectic. I was loading the shells and they were supposed to eject into a pile and one of them landed next to the shells we were loading and I grabbed it. My hands were burned pretty good.”
Unable to hold his rifle, Kenefic says he was spared going out on patrols for a week.
On April 12, 1967, he was again wounded.
“We had just been relocated and landed in Da Nang. As we debarked, the enemy attacked us with mortar shells. I was hit with shrapnel in my face. It wasn’t so that I was disfigured, but I was bleeding like hell. Three or four pieces of shrapnel went into the right side of my face.”
When the mortaring stopped, Kenefic and dozens of other wounded troops were loaded onto flatbed trucks and taken to a Naval station hospital.
“They removed all but one piece of the shrapnel, which is still in my face. The only reason I still know it’s there is when I go to the dentist and they take X-rays, they ask about it,” he said, expressing amusement over his war souvenir.
Following two weeks in the hospital, Kenefic rejoined his brigade, assigned to a unit charged with clearing mines along a road that connected three military bases.
“Every morning we went out with the supply convoy and cleared the road ahead of them,” he said. “The mines were small, anti-personnel. We would find them using metal detectors and we had guys with us who were very good at disabling them.”
This work, he said, was relatively safe when compared to his previous patrol duties that often took him into the jungle at night in Tay Ninh.
“We took lots of ammunition and water when we went out. It was hot and you never knew where you were going,” Kenefic said of the night patrols.
Once the patrol had ventured perhaps a couple miles from the base – he explained it was hard to gauge distance in the dark – the soldiers would establish a perimeter “and we’d wait for the enemy to walk into us.”
The strategy worked and resulted in firefights.
In July 1967, Kenefic left Vietnam and the military.
“When I got home to my sister’s, I slept for about 20 hours straight. I hadn’t slept in a bed for nearly a year except when I was wounded,” he said.
Kenefic returned to college and the GI Bill paid for most of the tab. After earning a degree in marketing from Iona College, he was hired by the telephone company and transferred to the Buffalo area in 1981.
The father of three sons, he is married to the former Linda Taber. The retired couple resides in Hamburg.
An active member of the Hamburg American Legion Post 527, he says his service there and at the Veterans Administration gives him the chance to assist others.
“It was 50 years ago that I served, but I know what I went through, all the bad stuff, and I try to work with other veterans,” Kenefic said.
Robert J. Kenefic, 74
Hometown: The Bronx
Rank: Private 1st class
War zone: Vietnam
Years of service: Sept. 30, 1965 – July 19, 1967
Most prominent honors: Two Purple Hearts, Combat Infantry Badge