Kenny Braitman has lived a life of gratitude, and, when you hear his story, the reason seems obvious: Fifty-three years ago, he was a young Marine who survived vicious, hand-to-hand combat on a hill in what was then South Vietnam. You will not find his name among the 58,318 that appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.
His gratefulness, however, rises not merely from survival, but from what he gained after losing his legs.
It happened when soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army swarmed Braitman’s post at Khe Sanh in February 1968, during the NVA’s long, bloody siege of the Marine combat base there. Machine-gun fire ripped through his legs and, as he tried to crawl with a wounded comrade on his back, a mortar shell exploded nearby, ending his rescue attempt and his duty in Vietnam. He spent a year in Philadelphia Naval Hospital with hundreds of other Americans who had lost limbs.
All that misery, Braitman believes, changed his life forever, and in a good way. “Being a Marine,” he says, “was one of the best things that happened to me, particularly losing my legs.”
He says that as we sit in the autumn sun near a shed on rural land that Braitman, now 74, has been slowly turning into a “food forest” in Western Maryland. I can see the prosthesis below his pant cuffs. I ask him to elaborate on that last part, about gratitude and losing his legs.
“Having artificial legs as a result of wounds from Vietnam, I am constantly reminded of that loss,” he says. “I am forever grateful that I have what I have. Each step that hurts is a step that some others can’t make. My prostheses keep these thoughts in my mind and help me focus on what I have, not what I have lost.”
The Vietnam War was a tragic, costly failure, a dubious mission built on lies and deeply flawed assumptions. But Braitman did not question it and, a year after graduation from high school in Bethesda, he joined the Marines. He had been a varsity wrestler and identified as an athlete, above all, but he wanted to test himself further. He ended up a scout sniper on Hill 861a at Khe Sanh.
“After I lost my legs,” he says, “I went through this period [and realized] I hadn’t completely defined what a good person is for me. In the Marine Corps, the test of personhood was my ability to go through the jungle, to be able to take on the NVA and win. Those skills are life skills — adaptability, resilience, the ability to read the environment, think quickly and not let emotions distort your decisions … It wasn’t until I lost my legs and said, ‘Well, if that’s how I measure myself, I’m now a loser because I can’t do any of those things.’ So, either I change my definition of what a person is or accept myself as a loser, and that was not acceptable.”
One of Braitman’s former teachers gave him a copy of “Siddhartha,” the Herman Hesse novel about a man’s spiritual journey. “That book answered my question,” Braitman says. “Your value is in your heart and how you embrace the world and other people, and the life you lead [should be] one that, if others see it, they might find some good in it.”
In the decades since his Vietnam duty, Braitman studied at Frostburg State University and became a veterans counselor and administrator there. He’s lived in Garrett County all these years, the last 35 with his wife, Ann Bristow Braitman.
Away from their home are 30 acres of fields and woods that Ken Braitman has been turning into a “food forest” as a practitioner of “permaculture,” a form of sustainable farming that he took up five years ago. He’s planted edible, perennial plants, berry bushes and nut and fruit trees. The project includes a pit greenhouse, or walipini, built into the bank of a hill. Inside I found a healthy bed of strawberries, kohlrabi, leafy greens and even a small fig tree.
Braitman is planting a legacy in the land, and being gentle about it. You don’t see evidence of plow or tiller anywhere. It’s not that kind of farm.
The food forest, he says, will eventually provide food for the community around it. “Climate change and the pandemic have threatened food supply chains, the growing of food and transportation,” Braitman explains. “People will be forced to be resilient and rely upon their region [for food]. My food forest may be the only source of edible food nearby.”
Braitman invokes the Native American tradition of stating his gratefulness out loud so that he never takes simple gifts of the natural world around him for granted. His food forest strikes me as another way for him to express gratitude — to say thanks for the life he’s lived since Vietnam by leaving something good behind for others who might one day come foraging for it.
“I may not be around when this farm is fully productive,” Kenny Braitman says. “Nonetheless, it is people caring about people that makes this world a livable place. It is people not caring about people that is destroying our planet.”
He left me with this: “If you are grateful for what you have and lead a positively-thinking life, your life will be mostly positive — particularly, if you care about others as well as yourself.”