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Veterans' Day Honors Vietnam POW
Kenneth Miller knows the price of freedom.

He spent more time than he cares to remember thinking about his own freedom and those of his fellow servicemen when he was being held as a Prisoner of War in Vietnam. Eventually freed and able to come home, that brought its own adjustments - as Vietnam vets were typically not welcomed back with open arms ‑ and Miller is now active in the local Gustafson-Thompson American Legion Post in Escalon, where he said veterans of any age can come, be welcomed, and gain support from someone who knows what they have gone through.

Miller will be honored as this year's Grand Marshal for the annual Veterans' Day observance in Escalon. It is planned for this Saturday, Nov. 10 in the downtown area for the parade, then moving to the city's community center for a service at the Memorial Wall. A chicken barbecue lunch will follow.

Completing boot camp in 1968 in San Diego, Miller served in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1974 and also had combat medical training with the U.S. Marines.

"I trained for about eight weeks, then was sent to Parris Island, South Carolina for more training with the combat ready Marines," Miller explained.

When he was sent to Vietnam, he was attached to the 1st Marine Division, 26th Battalion Bravo Company in Da Nang.

"My first few days were hard to take," Miller admitted, "seeing men die all around me, but I got my job done. The Marines called me 'Doc'."

Miller said he didn't make too many friends in Vietnam, because "it was too hard to say good-bye" when they were lost in combat.

It was in July, 1969 that he and several others on board a Chinook helicopter went across the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone) in search of servicemen in a downed chopper that had been reported north of Dong Ha.

"The VC (Vietcong) and North Vietnamese Army were waiting for us," Miller said. "My team was surrounded and captured."

Miller and his fellow service members were then sent on a journey north to the infamous 'Hanoi Hilton' where many prisoners of war were held.

"For three days we walked; always north, tied together with bayonets always at our backs," he explained. "The water in our canteens and a handful of rice per day was all we had to keep us going."

Conditions didn't improve when they got to the 'Hilton' and Miller said there were many days he didn't believe he would get out alive. He was a POW for more than a year; his weight dropped from 195 pounds to 165 pounds and he and other POWs were forced to endure inhumane conditions for most of their captivity.

He was finally able to come home in 1971 but said he still has difficulty talking about that time and many of the incidents that occurred.

A decorated service member, his honors have included the Navy Good Conduct medal, Overseas Services medal, National Defense Service and more.

Miller said at the time he signed up for the service, his draft number was 7. So he signed up for the Navy, anticipating he would serve at sea.

"I figured I'd be aboard ship, get three square meals but they were short of medics and corpsmen," he said.

Chosen for the medical training, his ticket was punched to being on the ground in Vietnam, not at sea.

Before his capture, he was among those medics going in to treat the wounded after battle.

This year, marking the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, the local observance will honor Miller. He came home in 1971 on a national POW exchange and spent several weeks recuperating before flying back to California.

"I flew into Oakland and they told us not to wear our uniforms," he said.

A resident of the Escalon area since 1988, Miller said a chance meeting with the late Palmer Little several years ago prompted him to make a visit to the local American Legion Hall.

It was there that Miller was able to forge friendships and talk with people that had been there, that understood some of what he had gone through.

"You couldn't find a better guy," he said of Little.

With the Veterans Day holiday, Nov. 11, falling on a Sunday this year, the Escalon observance will be on Saturday instead and will kick off with the downtown parade at 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 10 followed by a brief ceremony at the Community Center Memorial Wall. The popular chicken barbecue is offered inside the community center following the ceremonies. Tickets will be available at the door for the barbecue. A second ceremony will be hosted at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11 at the historical Main Street caboose for those that want to attend.

Parade coordinators this year are Dennis Parish (209-496-5825) and Darrell Voortman (209-838-7064) and they can be contacted for more information about how to get involved in the day's festivities.

"If you haven't thanked a veteran, do it today," Miller said. "Let's try to bring our patriotism back to the U.S. and remember, freedom has a price."