By Denise Tessier
“Unknown Hero” was the prominent headline on Sunday Journal’s front page, and the thoughtful story that followed continued the theme of mystery that once surrounded the life and heroism of Marine Lance Cpl. Kenneth L. Worley.
“Unknown Hero” was a fitting tribute for the paper to run as it did on National Medal of Honor Day – and Worley, a recipient of the nation’s highest military decoration – was a fitting subject. But something nagged at this reader when the story asserted that Worley’s heroism was largely unknown until this year. From Sunday’s story:
Officials with the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services only recently heard of Ken Worley. And he was not included in the Journal’s centennial book that included profiles of the state’s Medal of Honor heroes, because the Journal had also not been aware of him.
So before January 2012, the Journal had “not been aware of him.”
Yet when Sunday’s story related that Bruce Salisbury of Aztec, a retired Air Force master sergeant, had spent “the better part of the last decade” ensuring Worley was properly recognized and honored in his hometown of Farmington, I knew I’d heard about Worley before.
Back in 2008, I had talked to Salisbury while researching a story for the online New Mexico Independent about Salisbury’s successful efforts to rename a Colorado mountain KIA-MIA, honoring veterans killed or missing in action. Worley was mentioned at the time in Salisbury’s online blog.
Worley also was mentioned somewhere else that year: in an Albuquerque Journal UpFront piece by then-long-time Journal columnist Jim Belshaw.
Make that twice, and it was certainly more than a mention.
After the August 2008 column, “A Brave Marine Who Left No Trace,” Belshaw followed it up in September with “That Mysterious Marine Was Someone’s Cousin.”
Belshaw had been contacted by Worley’s cousin, Moriarty resident Sharon Houston, the morning his first column on Worley appeared. His follow-up included Houston’s remembrances, which Belshaw had passed on to Terence Barrett, a former Marine and North Dakota State University professor, who at the time had been conducting an 8-year research study on the nature of bravery, based on 292 Marine Medal of Honor recipients, including Worley.
At the time, Belshaw had written:
Ken Worley had become of special interest to (Barrett). For years, he scoured public records and could find nothing on the young Worley. He could find no grade school records of him in Farmington. He could find no high school records for him in Truth or Consequences.
The new information Belshaw passed on from Worley’s cousin to Barrett – that Worley had been mistreated and had run away from home — was consistent with Barrett’s research findings. Barrett told Belshaw:
“One of the things I found in common with all the (Medal of Honor recipients) I’ve studied is that a number of them came out of troubled families,” he said. “Several were in foster care. More than one had run away from home. Many had significant challenges to overcome in childhood and they could have gone in many directions, but they chose to become better in spite of the challenges they faced. I find those to be inspiring stories.”
Barrett’s research, according to Sunday’s story, is now a book called “The Search for the Forgotten Thirty-Four,” and Barrett was able to provide a detailed history of Worley’s childhood for this week’s story.
The Worley story is inspiring, and deserved the play it received Sunday. A striking photograph that accompanied it – of Worley and a male cousin as youngsters in the 1950s – helped bring to life the young man who in 1968 threw himself on a grenade, saving five fellow soldiers in Vietnam.
Quoting as it does both Barrett and Salisbury, the story essentially clears up the mysteries of Worley’s life, explaining why New Mexico was late in honoring a war hero who has been memorialized in California and Washington, where Worley’s foster family had lived.
The mystery now is why the Journal would have been “unaware” of Worley, when two columns about him by a former columnist pop up when searched, either on the Journal’s web site or via Google. They also come up on the Journal site — along with a couple of 2009 news stories about Worley’s memorial in Farmington — when one searches “medal of honor.”