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Gig Harbor veteran receives Purple Heart

Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Campbell recognized for wounds suffered during Vietnam War

Air Force Staff Sgt. John Campbell and his wife, Gail, greet Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, at the chapel at the VA Medical Center, American Lake, before a ceremony honoring Campbell Jan. 25. Photo credit: J.M. Smpson

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Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Campbell waited a long, hard time for his Purple Heart.

To be exact, he waited 44 years to receive the medal in order to honor the men he had served with.

"This medal honors them," he said.

Approximately 150 soldiers, airmen, local officials, family members and friends gathered this morning in the chapel at the Veterans Administration Hospital at American Lake.

"This is a time of worship, inspiration and honor," said VA chaplain Gary Cowden.

While on a recently declassified mission in support of the Royal Thai Air Force, Campbell and his team encountered a substantial enemy attack Jan. 1, 1970.

Campbell's life changed on that day.

"War is not like the movies portray it," he began moments after receiving his Purple Heart from Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.

"You will do anything to protect the soldiers next to you."

In what was a ferocious fight, and all but one of the men who served with Campbell died.

"All I have are memories; no last names," he said quietly.

One of those airmen, Capt. James Cross, who had fought alongside Campbell on that fateful day, died several months on his last mission.

It was a mission Cross volunteered to fly.

Campbell left the Air Force later in 1970, and soon the doubts about why he had survived the war.

Campbell paused before continuing.

>>> Air Force Staff Sgt. John Campbell holds a Meal.Combat.Individual box dating back to the Vietnam War in order to make a point after receiving a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in combat 44 years ago. Photo credit: J.M. Simpson

"This is the box of the food we had," he continued as he held up in his right hand a light brown cardboard box with the words "Meal.Individual.Combat" on the side.

Putting the box down, he then held up a small tin can of bread that came with the meal.

"I can still smell the bread; it's got a smell and taste you don't forget," he continued.

Then a tear appeared in his voice.

"Like the smell of gunpowder and death."

He wasn't the only one in the chapel now aware of the tug of tears.

After leaving the Air Force in July 1970, Campbell began to build a civilian life.

Post-traumatic stress and the negativity it brings accompanied him.

"He developed a strong need to turn this negative energy into a positive," reads the information sheet accompanying the ceremony's pamphlet.

Campbell and his wife, Gail, worked hard and made a life and family. 

They also made it their goal to help troubled children, young teenagers and battered women turn their lives around.

But the post-traumatic stress, the negative energy of war, never let go.

"I don't know how they put up with me," Campbell said in reference to his wife of 46 years and his son.

In 2009, he entered the VA's system for assistance with the post-traumatic stress that he had tried to avoid.

"I had hit bottom," Campbell said.

He credits the VA, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and the American Legion for helping him close a painful chapter of his life.

"Do not try to hide the thoughts; don't be afraid to get help," he said.

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