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Sailor's medals arrive, 48 years later

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By Ron Benningfield

Two weeks before Christmas, Gordon Bright received a present that was 48 years in arriving – medals he had earned for service in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.
“I got to thinking what medals I might be eligible to receive after I had talked to several guys that I served with,” said Bright, a 68-year-old LaRue County native who entered service in 1966.  
“I served for three years, eight months, and seven days,” he recalled from his home off Highway 357 about five miles from Hodgenville.  
Most of that service was as a boiler technician aboard the destroyer USS Rich which took him from his home port in Norfolk, Va., to Europe, Guantanamo, Cuba, and waters off the coast of Vietnam where he came under fire.
“We were on deck, anchored in Da Nang Harbor when we noticed the water being kicked up as though hail was falling into it,” he said. “It wasn’t hailing, though; it was snipers whose shots were falling just short of our ship.”
He had joined the service, he said, to travel and see the world.
“I would have to say ‘mission accomplished’ on those goals,” he said.
While he relived his military experiences, he pointed toward the medals, ribbons, and other military memorabilia that filled two large shadow boxes lying on his kitchen table.  
Inside the first box, lined into neat rows like sailors on parade, the awards included two Vietnam service ribbons with two bronze stars each, a U.S. Navy expeditionary ribbon, meritorious unit citation, navy commemorative medal, armed forces expeditionary medal, and several others.
Each medal or ribbon has a personal story behind it.  
In the other box lay more memories – a photo of himself in uniform, dog (identification) tags, a shore liberty pass, patches of the Rich and another destroyer on which he served – the USS Wallace Lind, a Navy belt buckle, and a card certifying when he officially became a “Shellback.”
“The Navy has a big ceremony for seamen the first time they cross the equator,” Bright explained. “Until you cross it, you’re known as a Pollywog, but after crossing the equator, you are initiated into the ‘Kingdom of Neptune’ and from then on you are known as a Shellback.”
In spite of the few humorous occasions, however, Bright, who reached the rank of petty officer, said most of his time was spent in very serious endeavors, from preparing for battle through very realistic war games, to surviving mountainous waves when his ship rolled within five degrees of capsizing in a typhoon, to feeling his whole body vibrate from the shock waves of the onboard five-inch guns as they hurled heavy shells toward an enemy that liked to hide deep underground.
Though almost a half century has passed since he served, the memories sometimes flash in his mind as vividly as though they happened yesterday.  
Looking at the shadow boxes, he said he appreciates the medals he received and is proud to have served, but added that they’re not just for him.
With tears welling in his eyes, he shared, “As I look at these medals, they’re for all of us who served, and especially for those who gave their lives for freedom and for country. Freedom is not cheap.”