As "Taps" mournfully echoed around Wheeler Park and a spring wind gusted the colors held proudly by veterans of the Mark A. Moore American Legion Post 3, Rita Kittrell and her children Joshua, Rose and Tasha dabbed tears and bravely maintained their composure.

Eleven years after his death, the family of Lewis Kit Kittrell was presented the Silver Star and Purple Heart medals he earned during a bloody day of combat in the mountains of Vietnam in January 1970.

The simple, but moving Memorial Day ceremony in the park, officiated by Mayor Joe Donaldson and U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, marked a solemn end of a frustrating bureaucratic battle Rita Kittrell had waged with federal officials since 1991.

After her husband's unexpected death, Rita Kittrell began writing letters to Arizona officials, the Army and congressional representatives to find out why he had never received the medals.

Years passed without result, paperwork got lost and finally she turned to Hayworth for help. Hayworth, a former member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, "contacted military officials immediately and the medals were delivered to his office earlier this week," said a news release from the congressman's office.

At the Wheeler Park event, Rita, her children Joshua, Rose and Tasha thanked Hayworth and veterans who supported the family's bid for recognition. Kittrell's other daughter, 23-year-old Leah, was unable to attend Monday's ceremony. Rita Kittrell said her daughter is joining the Army.

Lewis was a self-employed plumbing and electrical contractor. Besides the deep sorrow his family endured at his passing, his death presented financial challenges for his widow, who did not immediately know about veterans' death benefits.

With help from friends and family members, Lewis was buried at the family plot in a home-made wooden casket.

For Rita Kittrell and her children, Monday afternoon in the sun among friends, military veterans and strangers showing their respect,

"My children and I feel blessed and thankful. We went through hard times but we pulled together. My message to anyone who has lost someone is to never give up. Never give up on life," said Kittrell, a 45-year-old hair stylist who lives at the Flying Heart Ranch in Flagstaff.

 
 


 

According to the Department of Defense, Army Private First Class Lewis Kit Kittrell didn't give up on Jan. 14, 1970, when his long range reconnaissance patrol was ambushed in the Chu Pa Mountains while on a classified mission.

"Seeing that his patrol was vastly outnumbered, he elected to stay behind and hold off the enemy so the rest of the patrol could retreat safely," reads the paperwork accompanying his Silver Star.

As Kittrell fired his M60 machine gun to beat back an enemy charge, the overheated weapon jammed. Attempts to change the red-hot gun barrel with his bare hands were unsuccessful so Kittrell threw a grenade to stop "the charging enemy." He put his last grenade on top of the machine gun's ammo and retreated, firing his .45 at soldiers who ran into the blast with devastating results, said an official account of the ambush.

But efforts to pull Kittrell out of the firefight by waves of Army Air Calvary helicopters failed after one of the choppers was "brought down in flames" by enemy fire, said the report.

Kittrell headed deep into the bush.

"Almost unbelievably, PFC Kittrell returned to Camp Enari on 22 January at 0300 hours with burns on both hands and his body was cut up from breaking brush," added the report.

Rita Kittrell said her husband, who she was introduced to in Colorado by the pastor of her church in the late 1980s, rarely talked about his tour of duty in Vietnam. And she is not sure how he would accept being called by Congressman Hayworth as "one of Flagstaff's bravest sons." He was a quiet man, she said.

Tasha Kittrell, a 26-year-old employee of the Arizona Cardinals, seemed to sum up what Lewis Kit Kittrell might have thought on Memorial Day 2002 in a sunny Wheeler Park among the dozens of military veterans in attendance.

"My father was a very courageous war hero, but not the only one," she said, honoring those who also served their country in time of war.

— Arizona Daily Sun