MADEIRA BEACH, Fla. - In order to get to the white sand and waves of Madeira Beach this July 4th, visitors had to pass several American flags.
One of them was hidden, though, painted on the wall beside the Madeira Beach Coast Guard Auxilary.
"Thank you," Gene Kuhns sighed.
Sgt. Ernest "Gene" Kuhns rubbed his hand over the brick wall of names that surrounds the painted flag. He doesn't know them, but he can't help feeling a connection to their names, especially the names on bricks engraved with the word "Vietnam."
"No one liked them when they got home," he said.
Kuhns knows firsthand. A combat dog handler, he and his K-9 roamed the jungle all alone at night for a year and a half, searching for suicide bombers.
"I just did my thing and prayed to God that I'd be alive come the next morning," he said. "Seeing people be killed and killing people... There are times during the day where you're back in the war."
Because of his post traumatic stress disorder, Kuhns had panic attacks at work, which cost him his job and the life he dreamed of giving his family.
Eventually, he came to terms with accepting government disability pay by accepting the fact he had returned a broken man.
The only glimmer in his dark memories, he says, comes when people stop and thank him.
"That's a lot to lose, but when people come up and say, 'Thank you,' that means a lot," he cried.
Understandably, his daughter, Kristin, grew up looking for a way to say that, too. Then, she heard about the hidden flag and the wall of bricks.
As Kuhns thanked each name this July 4, he never noticed he was thanking himself.
"Dad, look," Kristin pointed out.
"Oh I'm here. Oh my God," her father cried. "Thank you."
Kuhns returned from war 40 years ago a decorated hero, but admits, his country didn't see it that way.
"When I came home, so many people hated me," he said. "You don't know what I've been through. Things like this memorial, I feel good. Thank you for thanking me."
Kuhns still calls war his profession, the one he fought overseas and the one he still fights everyday in his own mind.
Despite all he's lost, he says, if asked, he'd do it all over again.
"I never thought I'd get this kind of recognition in my life," he smiled.
For more information on how to honor a veteran with a brick, call the Madeira Beach Coast Guard Auxilary at 727-391-5185.
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