My favorite stories to write are about people. I’ve always said real life is better than fiction, and the following story proves just that.
I’ve been privileged to write hundreds of stories about some pretty amazing people over the past few years. This one stands out among them all.
You see, before I had the honor of interviewing Kelly Kemp and writing a snapshot of her story in February 2010, I gave little thought to Memorial Day. Sure, both of my grandfathers had served in Korea and fought in World War II, and my great-grandfather fought in World War I. But they all survived, they all came home. Life went on and wartime faded.
Kelly Kemp’s father did not.
I wrote “Letters of Legacy” during the wee hours of the morning early in my pregnancy with my second daughter. And I felt a connection to and respect for this young man who sacrificed his life for the freedom I’ve always known.
But Kenneth Prejean’s story didn’t end in Vietnam. His testimony stills speaks volumes to those who hear it. And I hope this short re-telling will speak to you this Memorial Day.
Before leaving for Vietnam in Jan. 1969, PFC Kenneth A. Prejean wrote to his bride, “To my lovely Princess, please do not read this unless I do not return.”
Less than four months later, a taxi driver delivered Janey Witt-Perez a telegram with the worst news of her life.
On May 1–the day of their one-year anniversary–her beloved husband was killed in battle. He was only 22.
Life for Janey would never be the same, and her newborn daughter would know very little about her daddy for almost 41 years.
The Sound of Loss
“Right now, you are too young to use your voice to do anything but cry. But as you grow, I want you to learn how to use your voice. Use it loud. And if a war like this one ever comes along again, shout if you have to.”* ~ Kenneth A. Prejean
Although Kelly Kemp didn’t personally know Lance Cpl. Noah M. Pier, when she heard of his recent death in Afghanistan, she was overcome with emotion.
“I sat on my floor and cried in the midst of all my father’s letters,” she said. “But I’m grateful our nation has learned to love these heroes well.”
Noah’s passing reminded Kelly of her father’s death.
Now a mother of three and child life specialist at Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte,N.C., Kelly was Kenny’s infant.
The 41 year old has recently experienced a bond with her father that she never felt before, beginning four months ago with the discovery of a stack of unopened letters. Kelly calls them “letters from heaven leaving a godly legacy.”
But the legacy Kenneth wrote about is not one Kelly has always known.
“When I get home, please don’t ask me about Nam. It is an awful place, and I don’t want to remember it.”
Growing up in New Orleans, La. in the 1970s, the subject of Kelly’s father was “off limits.”
“My mom buried her pain and tried to move on with life,” said Kelly. “But that meant this soldier was something that never could be discovered.”
A Family’s Love
“Take care of your mother. I want to be with both of you. I want to hold you in my arms. I want to smell baby instead of death.”
Kenneth and Janey met in Dec. 1967 and married the following spring–May 1, 1968.
Kenneth was drafted shortly before the wedding and left for training in September.
Due to be born in February, Kelly came prematurely on Dec. 29, 1968. Her father was given permission to leave training to see her.
“I was still in the hospital, and he was there for a couple of hours,” she said.
One of Kelly’s most treasured photographs is of her father holding her.
Little did Kenneth know he would never hold his baby girl again.
“I pray to God no other child must know the loneliness of life without a father.”
Kelly, now a devout Christian, uses a Bible verse from Joel 2:25 to describe much of her childhood: “the years the swarming locust ate.”
Kelly’s mother re-married less than six month’s after Kenneth’s death, and Kelly’s stepfather adopted her.
Although thankful for the loving relationship she maintains with her adopted dad, he and Janey divorced when she was nine. Kelly then experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriends and later turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain.
“I was living a very worldly lifestyle,” she said. “I was angry.”
“I can’t stand anymore of this killing, seeing death. All I want is to be with you.”
While Kelly was still steeped in drug and alcohol abuse, her maternal grandmother gave her a treasured box of her father’s possessions–including hundreds of letters written to family members–when she was 21.
However, Kelly became overwhelmed when she began reading the letters.
“I probably read 15 or 20 total, and I put it all away,” she said. “It was so sad, and, at that point, my life was just sad.”
“The ONLY thing that heals the scars of war is Jesus Christ.”
Another one of Kelly’s favorite Bible passages is Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
Joy finally came for Kelly 11 years ago.
“When I was 30 years old, I attempted suicide,” she said.
The day Kemp was released from the hospital, she “received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”
“That day life began for me,” she said. “God restored the years the locusts had eaten–with gladness and singing.”
“I long to watch you take your first steps…to see you off on your first date….to walk you down the aisle.”
Kelly doesn’t know why she didn’t re-open her dad’s box then, but she sees the timing as divine.
“I had to learn how precious I was in the eyes of the Lord before I couldn’t be torn apart by the loss of this man who thought I was so precious,” she said.
So four months ago, Kelly opened the box of her father’s belongings for the first time in 20 years. She noticed a stack of 10 unopened letters–separate from the ones she had read earlier–pushed to a corner. They were all addressed to her; she had never seen them before.
“They aren’t just letters filled with God’s love,” said Kelly. “It’s somebody who I never knew that I finally get to know.
“It’s amazing how God takes bitterness away before you discover things that could hurt,” Kelly continued. “When I finally read through every single letter, there was no bitterness. There are tears, but I no more question: ‘Why God did you take this man?’”
Kenneth’s last words to Kelly were written May 1, 1969, 7:06 p.m. He died at 9:20 p.m.
“If I am not there: I don’t want you to yearn for me, your earthly father….I want you to look for HIM, your heavenly Father. Because, my precious daughter, WHEN YOU FIND HIM, YOU WILL SEE ME. I will be there with Him, cheering you on, every step of the way. I will love you forever and a day. Pray for peace, Love Daddy.”
*All italicized quotations taken from Kenneth’s letters to Janey and Kelly.