WASHINGTON — For nearly 53 years, William Washington wondered why he never received a Purple Heart after being injured on the battlefield during the Korean War.

“I knew it was on paper somewhere, but at the time, I figured we’d get it when we got back to the States,” the 71-year-old Army veteran said. “I got several ribbons, but no medals. I just figured I’d get it sometime.”

The Army did finally get him the medal, more than 40 years after he got out of the service and many years after his injuries had healed.

Officials said they still aren’t sure why he never received one — paperwork shows he should have had it pinned on before leaving South Korea — but belatedly praised Washington for his service at a ceremony at the Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, Va., last month.

For his part, Washington said he is just happy he finally received an honor he knew he deserved.

Washington was a 19-year-old private in June 1952 when his company — part of the 3rd Battalion, 180th Infantry Regiment — came under fire from North Korean soldiers. While clearing a rifle jam, an enemy explosive landed nearby, spraying hot shrapnel on his left side.

Despite the injury, Washington stayed with his unit through the night.

“They had gotten between us and the main body of the company,” he said. “If we had tried to just leave, they would have shot us. So we were fighting all night.”

In the morning, reinforcements helped reunite the stranded soldiers. Washington said he refused to be put on a stretcher because “I wanted to walk off that hill and see what had happened.”

He was evacuated for treatment but returned to his unit weeks later, facing more combat missions. He returned to California in early 1953 and stayed in the Army until 1960, retiring at the rank of staff sergeant.

He said he inquired about the Purple Heart a few times, but only recently tracked down the paperwork that authorized his award. Once that was verified, officials began organizing the ceremony.

Washington said some of his family was able to watch him receive the award. The Virginia resident had six daughters, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, and he said he is proud to be able to share it with all of them.

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