Michael Cunningham poses with the half-dozen commendations he received 50 years after earning them for his service in the Army during the Vietnam War. Sarah Graettinger, a constituent service representative for U.S. Sen. Angus King pictured with Cunningham, said it is an honor to help veterans like Cunningham get the medals they deserve. Contributed photo

In May of 1970, Michael Cunningham flew into combat in Cambodia by chopper with his fellow Army soldiers with the 1st Air Cavalry Division, one of at least 25 combat missions in which he entered hostile territory.

His unit’s job was to fly into enemy territory by helicopter and establish landing zones and fire support bases so other soldiers, and the supplies they needed, could then be brought in.

His service during the controversial invasion of Cambodia that year during the Vietnam War earned him the Bronze Star Medal, with one Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster, the oak leaf cluster signifying he was also recognized with a second Bronze Star.

Cunningham, 78, received a commendation for that service, one of a half-dozen he earned after being drafted into the Army, where he served from 1969 to 1971. But, until this fall, he didn’t receive the actual medals for his acts of service to the country.

“It’s not like you see in the movies — you’re in the jungle; the medals weren’t available then,” he said of why he never got the medals despite his efforts being recognized in formal commendations. “It was a different era.”

This September, a couple of years after a family member of Cunningham reached out to U.S. Sen. Angus King’s office for help, Cunningham received his earned medals. The Bronze Star Medal with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster; Air Medal; Army Commendation Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Vietnam Service Medal with three Bronze Service Stars; and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon.


He said he’s proud to have the medals, but stresses that getting them wasn’t really about himself.

“This is more than just about me, this is about the many men and women who went to Vietnam, very quietly, and alone, and then came back to a society that didn’t seem to care about them,” said the South Bristol resident, who worked and lived in Augusta for many years. “You went over alone and, if you were fortunate to come back alive, you came back alone. You just blended into an unwelcoming society.”

King, in a news release, said “Michael Cunningham served his nation with bravery, valor, and distinction. The medals he earned are a testament to this extraordinary service, and an important physical representation of the debt of gratitude he is owed by all Americans. I’m deeply grateful for Michael’s service and glad we could award him the medals he earned.”

Cunningham credited Sarah Graettinger, a constituent service representative who has helped other veterans get their medals and works out of King’s office in Augusta, for going above and beyond to get him his medals. The process was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic during which some federal archives workers, like others in the pandemic, didn’t go into work and services were cut back.

“She made it all happen, even during the pandemic when you couldn’t get anything done,” he said. “I was surprised when she called to say she had gotten them. She went beyond the call of duty.”

Cunningham, who is retired after working for the Maine Department of Labor for 17 years in Augusta, has the collection of newly awarded medals, together in a frame Graettinger put them in for him, hanging over the fireplace of the home he shares with his wife, Vicky.

“I’m proud to show them,” he said, noting that he understands why some veterans choose not to display, or in some cases even accept, their medals from the war. “They were earned, I didn’t get them from a Cracker Jack box.”

Graettinger said it is part of her job to help with such inquiries and she enjoys and considers it an honor to help veterans get the medals they deserve.

She said some veterans didn’t get their medals when they earned them for a variety of reasons. Many simply didn’t get their physical medals because, while still out in the field, their units didn’t get enough medals for everyone to get one. Some, she said, didn’t want them. And others didn’t realize they were entitled to certain medals when they had earned them.

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