JEROME REILLY AN Irish hero of the Vietnam War who won a handful of Purple Hearts after being drafted into the US army is campaigning for an official memorial to the 23 Irish men and one Irish woman who died in the conflict in South East Asia.
Michael Coyne's fascinating account of his role in an armoured division of the US army during the Vietnam War comes as the world prepares to remember the 30th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon on April 28.
Mick Coyne's life began in Cornamona in Connemara, but nearly ended on five separate occasions in the padi fields of Vietnam where he received four significant shrapnel wounds and was shot in the arm by Viet Cong infantry. He received a total of five Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars, both with "V devices" for Valour.
He says his involvement made him politically aware for the first time, and that - whatever about the validity of the conflict in South East Asia and America's involvement in the war - those who died deserve to be honoured.
Now 60 years old, Mr Coyne of Jenkinstown, Kilcock, admits that when he was discharged from a military hospital for the last time, he walked away from the army and "never looked back" - both literally and psychologically.
Almost all his mementos were left on the battlefield - inside a tank of the 11th Armoured Cavalry, the unit in which he served with such valour and distinction.
He moved from his native Galway to County Meath when he was seven or eight years old in 1953, as part of the Land Commission relocation programme which moved people from congested Gaeltacht areas to the less populated regions in the east of the country.
"I went to America when I was 16 years old. My mother was dying of cancer and my uncle decided to send for me and bring me out to America to Chicago. I worked as a furrier for some years and then I was drafted in 1966," he recalls.
He trained in Fort Campbell in Kentucky and Fort Stewart in Georgia. His unit went to Germany, and while he was there he volunteered to go to Vietnam.
When he arrived in South East Asia, he found himself sent up to the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment and landed a plum assignment.
"When I first got there I was driving for the Colonel, the regimental commander, for two weeks but then I got caught smoking marijuana and they put me in a tank instead!
"I was wounded four times by shrapnel and shot in the arm once, so it was five Purple Hearts. For years I thought it was three, but I found out recently that it was actually five.
"We were unlucky. Almost every day we were in combat, during the Tet Offensive and during the mini-Tet Offensive. I used to scout for the unit. I was a back deck gunner and a machine gunner most of the time, so that meant checking out trails.
"Almost every one of the people I was with in Company 'D' got wounded a couple of times. Many got killed.
"The wounds I received were not too serious, except for the time I got shot in the arm. We were involved in an assault near some rice padis, and 200 yards ahead of us there were some armoured personnel carriers that got shot up and there were nine wounded crew on them.
"The captain was looking for volunteers to get them back. Two or three of us volunteered. There were bullets flying and machines guns turned on us. The other guy, I think his name was Hennessy, got hit in the leg and went down. I continued on and got the other guys out in an APC. I got shot on the way out," he recalled.
"To be honest, when I came out of the army after being discharged from hospital I turned my back on that part of my life and never looked back, and it has been the way for nearly 30 years. It's only in very recent times that I have begun to really want to think about it.
"I suppose I learned an awful lot about politics - about economic politics. That was the lasting legacy for me. It made me politically conscious. That carried an awful lot of baggage."
Mick Coyne never became an American citizen, and when he came out of the US army and back into civilian life things didn't go smoothly.
"When I came out of the army I got caught smoking pot again and ended up in jail for a short time. When I got out I left the country and never went back. I arrived back in Ireland in 1970."
Mick has three grown-up children; he spent the rest of his working life as an electrician. He is backing moves by the Irish Veterans Historical Research Centre (IVHRC) for the permanent memorial to the Irish who died in Vietnam with both the American and Australian forces.
"We have identified 31 so far but there are probably significantly more Irish who died," said Declan Hughes of the centre.
The IVHRC is a registered charity which aims to identify those Irish men and women who served in defence forces outside the Irish State, and to create a suitable memorial in Ireland to their service and sacrifice.