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Terry McKeel, a Vietnam veteran, describes his time serving Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, at his home in Charleston, Tenn. McKeel enlisted when he was 17 years old and was injured while serving when he was 19 years old.

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The untold stories: Decorated veteran opens up about his time in Vietnam

There are stories Terry McKeel has never told. Even 52 years later, the memories are still gruesome and difficult. He has told pieces to some family members, his brother, Bobby McKeel, and grandson, Grayson Merkel, in particular.

But for over five decades he mostly kept them to himself, leaning on his wife as he battled post-traumatic stress.

It was easier that way, he thought, but after Bobby McKeel nominated his younger brother for the Times Free Press' "21-Veteran Salute," Terry McKeel tearfully recapped his time in Vietnam, a brutal stint that rarely featured two consecutive days without combat.

"It was such a beautiful place to have such terrible memories," he said.

Bio:

Name: Terry McKeel

Age: 72

Home: Charleston, Tenn.

Military branch and rank: U.S. Marine Corps, sergeant

McKeel enjoyed being a soldier. He was good at it. He has nearly 20 medals to prove it. He joined the Marines in 1963 and quickly moved up the ranks. By 19, he was driving a tank.

His stint was violent. He was attacked his first night in Vietnam and, later, was fired on by a sniper while showering. He often slept under his tank.

On Sept. 25, 1965, he climbed under the main gun of that tank through the open driver's hatch. He was supposed to drive through Marble Mountain in the lead tank of a group of approximately three dozen infantryman. He had been out all night on a reconnaissance mission.

As the group got deeper in the trip, McKeel realized something was wrong. He could tell they were in an area where no soldiers had been. There was barbed wire overhead and the area looked dangerous, he said.

He wanted to make it over the next ridge and then close his hatch, climbing into the safety of the tank.

He never got the chance.

As the tank came over the ridge, a rocket flew toward him, killing the man next to him and blowing off a portion of the left side of McKeel's body.

"I thought, 'This is it,'" he said.

Nearly every bone on the left side of his body broke. The top of his left arm and shoulder were gone.

Soldiers were yelling for him to back the tank over the ridge. He listened. Gunfire and rockets exploded around him.

"If you ever saw a fireworks display, the grand finale at the end, that's the way it was on the ground all around us," he said.

He got out of the tank to take cover and pulled one of the infantrymen with him, but the man was dead. He tried to hide behind a tree limb but was shot in the leg.

Eventually, a helicopter came to rescue them.

He was flown from the battlefield and talked medical staff into keeping his arm. He spent the next year recovering in a hospital.

For years after the war, anti-Vietnam war sentiment stirred across the country. His stories weren't ones he believed anyone wanted to hear — or ones he wanted to share.

"That was tough," he said. "You didn't get the support like you do now, with flag-waving and all. It wasn't like that."

But a couple years ago, his grandson began to ask questions.

McKeel pulled out his shadow box — tucked away in the attic since after the war — and hung it up in the living room. It featured, among others, a Purple Heart and Gallantry Cross.

They're awards he hopes his grandchildren never have to earn, stories he hopes they never have to endure.

"My grandkids keep me happy," he said. "They're my world now."

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at mpace@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpaceand on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.

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