Kerney “In Action:” Reflecting on Vietnam and Africa

It’s the spring of 1970, and a 23 year-old Philadelphia Bulletin (defunct as of January 1982) reporter walks through an abandoned Viet Cong ammunition dump in Cambodia.

It’s the spring of 1970, and a 23 year-old Philadelphia Bulletin (defunct as of January 1982) reporter walks through an abandoned Viet Cong ammunition dump in Cambodia. Life Magazine photographer Larry Burrows accompanies History and Economics Master Regan Kerney H ’49 ’95 ’98 ’99 ’03 ’11, the young reporter, and the pair have strayed from the American patrol to which they had been assigned for their journalistic work. “It was stupid,” Kerney said. “The place could have been booby-trapped, there could have been residual North Vietnamese or Viet Cong forces hanging around…we just didn’t think about that…[Burrows] thought about taking pictures, and I thought about taking notes.”

While five weeks sound like a relatively short stay, Kerney certainly capitalized on the opportunity. For one investigation, Kerney traveled north of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) into villages where the U.S. Military was using a defoliant called Agent Orange, a substance thought to cause problems such as birth defects and instances of stillbirth. Kerney’s investigation into the citizens’ experiences proved to be successful as his account eventually appeared in the Congressional Record, but the day spent investigating also proved to be memorable because Kerney met his translator, a South Vietnamese man with the last name Qui who worked for the U.S. Embassy and Consulate. Kerney described him ironically as the “spitting image of Ho Chi Minh,” the former Communist North Vietnamese Prime Minister, and an “astonishing translator,” capable of relaying not only the subject’s speech, but also the nuance and precise vocabulary utilized. “He was like having your own literary critic,” Kerney said.

In addition, Kerney ventured out on a night patrol in the Mekong Delta with military personnel. The American soldiers dressed up in Viet Cong-like, all-black outfits and formed the patrol in order to “establish that the turf did not belong to the Viet Cong,” Kerney stated. The patrol separated each man by 10 to 15 feet so that no more than one man could be taken out at a time if they were subjected to a Viet Cong attack. Unlike the U.S. soldiers, Kerney did not carry a weapon and did not dress in black garb, the lack of protection “scaring the living crap out of [Kerney].” Kerney “memorized [the man ahead’s] steps, even in the dark,” since Kerney knew that “wherever he stepped hadn’t blown up.”

Most of the U.S. personnel Kerney interacted with “had no idea why the hell they were there,” a problem which Kerney blames on their superiors and on the lack of a true sense of purpose. Kerney met plenty of combat troops he considers heroes who will never be well-acknowledged or rewarded for their work and lived a daily existence that Kerney described as being “miserable.” He empathized with these veterans, especially when it comes to peoples’ misconceptions about soldiers. They were not “bloodthirsty crazies” as some believed; they were normal people whose “government [had] put them there…they didn’t ask to go, but they didn’t say no when they had to,” which impresses Kerney to this day.

Some years after his time in Vietnam, Kerney spent a year in Africa as a roving correspondent. Kerney did not shy away from potential danger while there and recalled an occasion in 1981 in which a freedom fighter from the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA) held him at gunpoint outside a remote camp. Kerney spent some time travelling with the FNLA while Cuban military forces brought in by the Angolan government hunted the guerilla outfits. On the day of incident, after a long time spent hiking a considerable distance from their previous camp, Kerney “got ahead of the people [he] shouldn’t have gotten ahead of” and finished the journey to the next camp alone. Upon arrival at the camp’s perimeter, Kerney encountered a freedom fighter who would not allow Kerney into the camp, pointing an automatic rifle at Kerney. Staring death in the face, Kerney could only think to himself: “What a screw-up…my life didn’t even flash before my eyes.” With the man ready to kill Kerney at any moment, a member of Kerney’s group had miraculously caught up and explained the situation, an event which Kerney half-jokingly described as one of “the major accomplishments of my life” and an event which has made it “easier to put small things into perspective.”

Speaking of journalism broadly, Kerney regards skepticism to be a journalist’s most valuable asset––not simply skepticism in thoroughly investigating one’s stories but being capable of “turning that skepticism on [oneself]…Journalists get wrapped up in their own importance a little too much.” In today’s constant stream of media, Kerney believes that society needs “less talk show, less talking head, more thought, [and] more standing back” from the topic at hand. “Some folks would do themselves well if they took a few hours off and read a good novel,” Kerney said.

In the men’s restroom at the airport upon returning to the U.S. from Africa, Kerney came to realize the fortune and benefits of the U.S., despite having seen its reputation tarnished slightly during the Vietnam War. Having spent the year looking for potable water frequently, Kerney recognized he was about to “desecrate” a toilet bowl full “of several gallons of perfectly drinkable water.” With his firsthand experiences in Vietnam and Africa, Kerney understands that the U.S. possesses a democratic society that, while scrutinized constantly, functions well much more often than it does not.

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