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Korean War veteran battles for Purple Heart

WILLARD -- It took more than 60 years for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to finally recognize the wounds Roy Torgeson sustained during the Korean War, but the 81-year-old Willard resident's battle isn't over yet -- he's still fighting for the Purple Heart he says he earned six decades ago.

Although he's lived in Willard for more than 50 years now, Torgeson was born and raised in North Dakota. He joined the Army when he was 17, just as the conflict in Korea was heating up.

"Like a lot of us did back then, I got in before I should have," Torgeson said of his choice to enlist at age 17. "You really didn't know what you were getting into."

When Torgeson first arrived in Korea in mid-1950, things got ugly, and in a hurry.

"It's a long story and I really don't love to talk about it," Torgeson said. "Basically I was in a firefight and I got a bad shrapnel wound in my left thigh."

After he was wounded, Torgeson was taken to a small hospital in the Korean Peninsula.

"That's part of the problem," Torgeson said. "I don't even know the name of the hospital. At 17, you're not thinking about getting all the proper documentation and things like that. You're thinking, 'How the hell do I get out of here?'"

Torgeson has had trouble with the leg ever since, but never really pursued the Purple Heart with any serious vigor until 2003.

"There was a job opening at Hill Air Force Base," he said. "But it involved having the Purple Heart as a qualification. It was at that moment I decided, 'I need to really start going after what I deserve.'"

For the past 10 years, Torgeson has sent letter after letter to the VA in an effort to obtain the Purple Heart, but he's always "come up against a closed door."

The doors are closed for Torgeson at several levels. First, he lacks the name of the hospital he was stationed at in Korea, so there is no hope of obtaining records from that source. But Torgeson, like many other veterans from his era, is a victim of another kind of cruel fate.

On July 12, 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Kentucky destroyed approximately 18 million Official Military Personnel Files. The records affected Army personnel discharged between Nov. 1, 1912 to Jan. 1, 1960 and Air Force personnel discharged between Sept. 25, 1947 to Jan. 1, 1964.

According to the NPRC, no duplicate copies of the records were ever maintained, nor were microfilm copies ever produced. Millions of documents had been lent to the Department of Veterans Affairs before the fire occurred, which meant a complete listing of the records that were lost has never been available.

In the subsequent years following the fire, the NPRC has collected numerous records, often referred to as Auxiliary Records, that have been used to reconstruct basic service information.

"I imagine that fire has created a lot of heartache for veterans trying to get what's rightfully theirs," Torgeson said.

Earlier this month, though, Torgeson got a glimmer of hope in the form of an unexpected letter from the VA.

Dated Feb. 7, 2014, the letter says the VA is finally recognizing Torgeson's battle wounds and agreeing to pay him a small monthly disability payment.

The VA is currently working to reduce their massive backlog of disability compensation claims, which at the moment is well over 400,000.

"I figure this letter sort of gives me the evidence I've needed for the Purple Heart," Torgeson said. "This backs up what I've been trying to tell them for the past 10 years. I just hope the Purple Heart process doesn't take as long. It seems like they just don't have enough staff or resources to go through all this information, as you can tell from the backlog."

Dee Torgeson, Torgeson's wife of almost 60 years, said the letter brought a flood of emotion to their household.

"He's a big, strong, tough guy, but when he opened the letter, we both couldn't help but cry," she said. "It's just a ray of hope that things might actually start moving in the right direction."

Torgeson himself said the letter has given him some renewed energy to go after his medal.

"I'm going to go back to the VA and try again," he said. "I hate to say it, but if you aren't a squeaky wheel, you won't ever get anywhere with them, so that's what I plan to do."

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