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The classified nature of his mission — and a personal sense of modesty — kept Fred Jenness from getting the Purple Heart he deserved.
But on Monday, 44 years after his Seabee unit was attacked in Vietnam and he was wounded defending them, Jenness was presented with the medal in recognition of his actions that day.
“It just sort of brought back a lot of memories, a lot of nights thinking about it,” Jenness said after being presented the medal at a ceremony at Golden Valley City Hall. “You try to put a lot of things behind you, but it was a good outcome.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, whose office worked with the Navy to research Jenness’ story and to ensure his recognition, said it was a similar story to many returning Vietnam vets.
“This is someone who served our country bravely, and, because he was in a classified unit, he didn’t get the recognition he deserved,” Klobuchar said. “You compound that with how we treated so many of our Vietnam vets when they got home — that has to change, and that’s why we worked so hard to make sure he got that recognition today.”
Jenness enlisted in the Navy and was a Seabee combat engineer, supporting intelligence operations in Ben Tre province of South Vietnam.
On Dec. 19, 1969, the enemy attacked his compound and he was wounded in the leg. He made his way to a bunker and returned fire with machine guns and rockets, ending the attack as the enemy retreated.
He was treated for his wounds and remained in the field; eventually, he was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and the Vietnam Service Medal.
Even though he received the other medals and his family and friends encouraged him to pursue the Purple Heart, Jenness never sought the medal, which is given for injuries sustained in combat. In 2004, Polk County Veterans Services Officer Rick Gates encouraged him to go forward after a simple conversation about Jenness’ experience.
Jenness, who worked for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for 34 years before retiring in 2009, reluctantly agreed. The first reaction from the Navy was to deny him the medal. It said there was no evidence that he was in combat or that he was wounded.
“They said that to a veteran with the evidence right in his leg and a Combat Action Ribbon to his name,” Klobuchar recalled at Monday’s ceremony.
Gates said the effort reached a “choke point” in Washington when bureaucracy kept demanding more documentation. “It was bottlenecked, and after fighting and fighting and fighting and e-mail flurries … we called in the big guns and we went congressional,” he said. “We had been working up the chain of command. When you get a senator involved, they start at the top and work their way down.”
The classified nature of his work compounded the delay, but an archivist in the National Museum of the Navy in Washington was able to find logs and records confirming the account.
With family gathered around him and two of his granddaughters — 5-year-old Breonna and 4-year-old Ella — tugging at his trousers on Monday, Jenness reflected on the 44-year journey.
“The honor for me is the grandkids,” he said. “They can have someone to look up to, someone they know who sacrificed.”