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Many Families Must Fight For The Medal Earned By Their Veterans

BUFFALO, NY (WBFO) - Today is the annual observance of Purple Heart Day in the United States. First created by George Washington on August 7, 1782, it's the world's oldest military decoration currently being used. Many veterans and families of deceased veterans who are owed this medal, however, must often undergo a painstaking process to acquire the deserved medal. Advocates say the reasons why range from incomplete paperwork to the veteran's own silence about war experiences for many years.

To mark Purple Heart Day 2019, Congressman Chris Collins will host a ceremony during which he'll present the Purple Heart and other military medals to the parents of the late Daniel Shaw. The West Seneca native was killed in action on November 5, 2007 while serving with the United States Army in Taji, Iraq.

Last week at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, Congressman Brian Higgins hosted two ceremonies to present Purple Hearts and other owed decorations to two surviving Vietnam War veterans and the families of four deceased World War II veterans.

The first recipient, William Roland Hayes, was presented with numerous decorations including three Purple Hearts. His ceremony, held on July 29, was hosted to offer him the dignified ceremony he previously didn't get. His original medals were simply mailed to him.

"Every veteran that you see has a story," Hayes said that day. "Maybe that veteran chooses not to tell that story, but nevertheless he has a story."

Many veterans and families throughout the nation are waiting for the chapter in their story to be written in which the government delivers overdue medals.

Sometimes, the family doesn't know their deceased loved one is entitled to one.

Lois Young is the daughter of one of the World War II veterans honored posthumously in Higgins' second ceremony at the Naval Park, held August 2. Her father, the late Calvin Coolidge Young, served with the US Navy in the Pacific Theater and was wounded when his tank landing ship was sunk in a Japanese kamikaze attack off the Okinawa beachhead.

Ms. Young and family members of the other honorees - Vincent John Marmion, George T. Cannon and Hugo Greinert - shared a similar statement that their deceased loved one's didn't discuss the war upon returning home.

For Young, it meant a youth during which she failed to understand that her father was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and demons that often come with it. After his death, she was inspired to learn more about who he was, and perhaps why he was the way he was.

"There had to be a story," she said. "We suffered as children growing up with someone who had been addicted to alcohol. But we didn't know there was a story."

She called the office of her U.S. Representative, Brian Higgins, seeking more information about her father. In time, they were able to provide information which surprised her.

"They informed me that my father was a hero," she said. "(They asked) 'Did you know that he has a Purple Heart?' What was unbeknownst to us was that we already had the DD-214 but it was not listed. When I tried to ask independently, they told me it burned in a fire."

Indeed, there was a large fire in 1973 that destroyed millions of veterans' records at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri. But for many veterans, their long quests for information may not have been caused by that fire. Many records including DD-214 discharge papers were already incomplete.

"A lot of times, the paperwork never makes it from the combat field into the United States on the DD-214," said Jim Schaller, Adjutant to Chapter 187 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. "You get out of the service, you sign off on all of the departments when you leave the service, and the last thing on your mind is looking at all the initials under decorations to make sure you have everything. As you get older, all of a sudden you say 'I got a Purple Heart' or a Bronze Star or something."

Schaller says further information is required to verify one's eligibility and have it documented. He told WBFO congressional offices are the best place to start. Congressman Higgins, for example, has a staff member who focuses on the digging to find that information.

"We'll go to third and fourth sources, toward the goal of trying to get all the medals that each of these veterans earned and are deserving of being presented to," said Higgins.

Congressman Collins provides links on his website to advise veterans or families how to gain assistance in acquiring owed medals. As explained in an email to WBFO from Collins' office, once they receive a request for a medal from a family or veteran, the staff member who handles veteran casework submits that inquiry to the National Personnel Records Center to see if the NPRC can fulfil the request. If that agency cannot do it, the request is forwarded to the veteran's branch of service for review and confirmation. In successful cases, the Army, Navy and Air Force will send the appropriate medals to Collins' office, while the Marines typically send due honors directly to the family.

In the case of Daniel Shaw, the message explains, the late veteran was never issued the Purple Heart. Collins' office sent a request to the Army to do so, arguing successfully there was enough evidence, based on Shaw's records, that he qualified.

Schaller says veterans or surviving family members may receive one full set of replacement medals in the event the originals are lost or stolen.

"That's probably what happens a lot here, that they may have had the medals but they were lost or stolen," he said.

That's what happened in the case of Salvatore Bonfante, an Amherst resident and Vietnam War veteran who received a new Purple Heart at one of Higgins' ceremonies. His original medal was stolen in a home break-in.

He was a man of few words when receiving his new one: "Thank you." But that's all he needed to say before one of the guests in attendance at the Naval Park ceremony shouted, "no, thank you!"

For Lois Young, the Purple Heart ceremony ends a journey of discovering more about her father's life and an understanding of the post-war pain he apparently kept within.

"That is where the healing began," she said. "When I found out what it was, I realized that my truth, my perspective, was not the truth," she said. "There's more to the story. When the gentleman called and told me my father was a hero, he said 'I want to thank you for your father's service.'"