FROSTBURG — Hershel Junkins was driving to Bruce High School in the spring of 1964 with the radio playing. The broadcaster was talking about the Vietnam War.
Hearing that his country needed him, when he arrived at school, Junkins went to his locker and collected his books, then went to the principal’s office to turn them in.
“I’m going to go serve my country,” Junkins said he told the principal. “It’s my duty.”
The principal tried to convince him to wait, but time was of the essence and Junkins left school to join the Army 10 days before graduation.
He entered the military July 11, 1967.
When he returned, he found himself unable to secure a diploma, the people in a position to get him one either said they couldn’t or didn’t know how, so he went on without one, that is, until late October of this year, when the Allegany County Board of Education sent one to the 73-year-old.
Kenny Porter, director of maintenance at Sterling Care Frostburg Village, where Junkins had been living, was driving the transport van to a dialysis clinic one recent day, something he doesn’t normally do. While on the trip, seeing Junkins’ veteran hat, Porter decided to make small talk, wherein he learned Junkins’ story.
After basic training, Junkins received advanced individual training to become a part-time sniper before shipping off to Vietnam, where he would serve one tour.
“Got in good with the Montagnards,” Junkins said. “Indigenous people in Vietnam.”
Where he was stationed, his unit would burn the boxes that 105 mm rounds came in. Sizing up the boxes, Junkins got an idea and asked if he could use them. No one objected, so he gathered them up, packed them in the back of a truck and took the truck down to where the Montagnards lived. There he packed dirt and building supplies in the boxes to help shore up the foundations of their homes.
“The chief said, you will no longer go in the jungle by yourself,” Junkins recalled. “I’ll send at least two of my men to help you.”
And they did. His unit and the Montagnards formed a mutually beneficial working relationship as the Vietcong engaged in guerrilla warfare, where they would shoot at them and then run away, he said.
“The North Vietnamese dug tunnels and hid,” Junkins said.
The Montagnards knew where to find the tunnels and would give chase to the ambushers, said Junkins, and after determining where both ends of the tunnel were, the soldiers and their Vietnamese allies would drop in grenades on both ends.
Junkins flew in missions where they would call in air strikes. One time while out on a mission, he said, the pilot told him they needed to land with malfunctioning landing gear. The pilot called out to him and said, “Look way out there, Rib (his nickname). Those two big trees out there, that’s your brakes.”
“That’s the (most) scared I ever was out there,” said Junkins.
The pilot assured him they’d be all right as he slowed the plane down and tilted it into the trees, tearing off the wings and coasting across the ground.
Junkins was honorably discharged and earned a National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal with four Bronze Service Stars, a Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal and a sharpshooter honor.
Back home, he drove coal trucks out of Westernport and the occasional school bus when the normal driver was sick.
He also reconnected with Cathy Junkins. “He was in Vietnam and I was in high school,” she said.
He went to Bruce and she went to Allegany. They dated in high school, but broke up and went their separate ways for a while and lived some life apart. Now they often joke about who dumped whom way back when.
They’ve been together for 21 years, since 1998.
“When we’d be out with his veteran hat on all these people would thank him for his service,” Cathy Junkins said. “That’s the one thing that makes him light up.”
She took him to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
“It’s just touching to have him tell stories,” said Cathy. “He always would say I love God, my country, my wife and my family. In that order.”
In anticipation of the diploma arriving at Sterling Care, Porter went to a thrift store in Keyser, where he’d seen a cap and gown. The proprietor asked him why he was buying the gown and he told her.
She gave it to him for free upon hearing the story, Porter said.
Junkins is battling dementia and suffered a health event on Halloween. He was taken to the Western Maryland Regional Medical Center.
On Nov. 4, Porter showed up at the hospital and presented Junkins with his diploma as a surprise.
“Finally,” said Junkins. “Thanks a million.”
“I won’t forget you,” Porter said.
Follow staff writer Brandon Glass on Twitter @Bglass13.