By Nicole Shue
It was a special day for Dan Hunnicutt, a resident of Hannibal, when a certain piece of his personal property was recently returned to him after it went missing for decades. The item was his Purple Heart medal, which he first received in 1968 for his time as a Pathfinder Ranger in the Army Special Forces during the Vietnam War.
The medal resurfaced earlier this year when a man in Tigard, Ore. was shoveling in his yard by his deck and found it in the dirt. He brought the worn and tattered medal to Veterans Affairs in Portland, Ore. An executive assistant with the VA, Rachel Hershinow, began searching for the owner. The back of the medal read “Daniel Steifer.”
Hunnicutt’s last name before joining the Army was Steifer, the same surname as his stepfather. After discovering that Steifer was not his biological father, he shed the last name. Hunnicutt was happy to cut ties with the family name. His stepfather had treated him cruelly as a child, so much so that the Army seemed like a place of refuge.
At age 15, Hunnicutt took the Army exam and passed it. Hunnicutt may have fooled the Army, but his deception didn’t get past his mother, who revealed to them her son’s actual age.
On his 17th birthday, Hunnicutt enlisted. He trained for a year at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning before arriving in Vietnam on his 18th birthday. He was an expert in weaponry and hand-to-hand combat.
Hunnicutt spent the next 14 months in the jungle, and witnessed unimaginable violence during the dark of night. It was in the Kien Hoa Province of Vietnam that Hunnicutt’s infantry squadron was ambushed. Hunnicutt and his unit were pinned to the ground, enemy fire whizzing around them.
Amid the chaos, Hunnicutt made the swift decision to stand up and gather scattered ammunition. His upright position made him an easy target, and he was shot at several times. Struck by a bullet, Hunnicutt crawled on his hands and knees, positioning himself close enough to throw a grenade.
The Army citation stated that Hunnicutt’s grenade silenced some enemy fire; enough that the Americans could overrun the field. During the ambush, Hunnicutt was shot in the leg, knee and back of the neck. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his devotion to duty and his extraordinary heroism.
While being treated for the wounds that landed him his Purple Heart, Hunnicutt was sent on another mission, but the fighting still left him with shrapnel in his leg. He was honorably discharged, and moved to Sebastopol, Calif.
“I was a mess when I returned to the states,” said Hunnicutt.
He recalls an incident from that time that lead to his incarceration. He attended a show in uniform, and people seated behind him began throwing popcorn at his head.
“Before the show was over I was at the jail,” said Hunnicutt.
Hunnicutt said his path to the straight and narrow was a long one. He suffered from PTSD and couldn’t understand even his own behavior. He was court ordered to meet with counselors and therapists, but says it wasn’t until he found God that his life began to turn around.
“I was angry back then. I wanted to get even. I found God a few years back and I’ve been able to forgive and put the war and my childhood behind me,” he said.
It was his love for gospel music and Jesus that started his career as a musician. Hunnicutt and his wife Joyce travelled the country for 10 years in a greyhound bus, spreading the word of God and Hunnicutt’s own testimony.
During his tour of the USA, Hunnicutt worked with Point Man International Ministries (PMIM). He visited Rescue Missions from California to Oregon, and jails along the way. PMIM is run by veterans from all conflicts, with a primary focus on mutual support, fellowship and spiritual healing from PTSD.
Hunnicutt’s first prison visit was in Salem, Oregon. He sang songs from Johnny Cash and Elvis to the convicts, and also his own gospel music he had recorded in Nashville under the name “Cross Ties.” Hunnicutt’s wife is also a songwriter, plays the bass and runs sound.
The band now performs under “Christ Ties,” a trio with his son Jason Hunnicutt and musician Jeannie Schmidt. Harmonizing with his son Jason is a real source of pride for Hunnicutt. Jason also shares a criminal past, but has moved forward with his life in a similar way.
Hunnicutt was reunited with his Purple Heart at a ceremony in August.
“Every veteran who came back from Vietnam deserves [a Purple Heart],” said Hunnicutt. “If not physical scars, we all left with emotional ones.”
Hunnicutt is currently mentoring a fellow veteran who also served in Vietnam.