Dying Marine receives a 'long overdue' honor Medal: Staff Sgt. Miles N. Kaiser, who was wounded in El Salvador, is dying of AIDS, which he believes he contracted through a blood tranfusion there. Years later, he is being awarded the Purple Heart. @

June 14, 1996|By FRANK LANGFITT | FRANK LANGFITT,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun stated that Marine Staff Sgt. Miles N. Kaiser received a military medal at Mercy Medical Center. Kaiser is in the Stella Maris Hospice Care Program, which leases space in the Mercy Medical Center complex.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Eleven years after he was wounded in a clash with Salvadoran guerrillas, Marine Staff Sgt. Miles N. Kaiser yesterday received the Purple Heart his government finally says he deserves as he lay in his bed at Mercy Medical Center dying of AIDS.

The man who says he sent Kaiser to Central America, Gen. Alfred M. Gray, a crusty former commandant of the Marine Corps, pinned the medal on the dress blue uniform Kaiser wore for the occasion, calling the honor "long overdue."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Gray, who is widely known as a Marine's Marine and greets people with a punch on the arm, praised Kaiser for his service to the country and spoke somberly of his sacrifice.

"The future is tough to think about," said Gray, his eyes moist. "You will find an awful lot of warriors at the other end of your journey." For Kaiser, 43, who family members say has been in and out of consciousness in recent days, it was a bright moment at an otherwise dark time.

"It was overwhelming," the gaunt soldier said afterward, struggling to speak through chapped lips. "The Purple Heart has a very unique feeling. It reminds you of those who gave so much of their lives."

Col. Fred Peck, a Marine Corps spokesman, said veterans of El Salvador had not received medals previously because many of their activities were classified and neither the Reagan nor Bush administrations openly acknowledged what they were doing.

In February, though, President Clinton signed legislation authorizing El Salvador veterans to receive the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, for serving in operations where they faced the potential of hostile fire.

Kaiser, who lives in Mount Washington with his wife, Linda, and 4-year-old twins, Emily and Matthew, served in El Salvador in the summer of 1985 training government soldiers to track guerrillas.

Gray at the time commanded the 4th Marine Amphibious Brigade, responsible for sending Marine trainers to El Salvador.

Ambush

One night Kaiser was on the slope of a volcano teaching a team of soldiers how to set an ambush, but ran into one instead.

A Salvadoran soldier set off a "Bouncing Betty" land mine, which sent shrapnel flying through the air and ripping into Kaiser's back, said Steve Howard, an Army Ranger and friend. Kaiser then took an M-16 round in his left calf.

He was taken to a hospital where he received a blood transfusion, through which, family members say, he contracted the AIDS virus.

Last month, Kaiser's father-in-law, Nat Kobitz, learned of the policy change on Salvadoran duty instituted by Clinton and notified a friend, Major Gen. James L. Jones, that Kaiser had never been honored for his service.

"I'm sorry it took 11 years," said Jones, who accompanied Gray to Kaiser's bedside yesterday. "I'm glad we're able to do the right thing, even at the eleventh hour."

El Salvador

El Salvador was one of the nation's most controversial foreign policy initiatives since the Vietnam War.

The administrations of Ronald Reagan and George Bush spent some $4 billion on the small Central American country, most of it in an effort to defeat left-wing guerrillas they feared would spread Marxism throughout the hemisphere.

With Congress threatening to cut off aid, Reagan administration officials continued to insist that U.S. personnel were not in the line of fire.

The 12-year civil war, which claimed 75,000 lives, ended in 1992 with a declaration of peace. A 1993 United Nations report blamed most of the atrocities, killings and massacres during the war on the U.S.-backed political and military leadership.

Friends reminisce

But the only talk of politics yesterday were the reminiscences of one of Kaiser's childhood friends, who recalled marching in Vietnam War protests with him.

"He was a peacenik like the rest of us" back then, said Doug Rohrback, who drove five hours from their childhood home in Liberty, a town in upstate New York, to attend the ceremony.

At the time, though, Kaiser was searching for direction in his life and found it with the Marines, Rohrback said. Friends and family say it was a career that took him to Paris, Casablanca, Morocco, and Cairo, Egypt.

He served with the 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, an elite Marine unit. Family members say he participated in the failed April 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages held in Iran. In 1982, he was part of the Marine security guard at the U.S. Embassy in war-ravaged Beirut, Lebanon.

Kaiser has lost 35 pounds since becoming ill in 1993. Yesterday, he found it difficult to speak, sometimes pausing for long stretches to collect his thoughts or take a sip of a water and lemon juice concoction.

"I'm sorry to be so rude, but I'm suffering from dehydration," he said, apologizing for having to take a break during an interview.

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