Mass. Vietnam War veteran among those to be honored by National Purple Heart Honor Mission
By JEANETTE DEFORGE | masslive.com | Published: January 3, 2021
CHICOPEE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — Despite being injured twice in Vietnam, once so severely he was lucky to survive, John Hurley Jr. says he never regretted joining the U.S. Marine Corps even as it came during wartime.
Fifty years later and after decades of volunteering for multiple veterans’ organizations, Hurley is now one of the first people in the country to be recognized by the National Purple Heart Honor Mission at West Point.
On the road to his being awarded the Purple Heart and other honors, including the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat V, Hurley suffered a hearing loss, multiple shrapnel wounds and other injuries. When he returned home, he faced disdain from those who opposed the war and decades later found himself in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I would do it all over again,” Hurley says. “I joined the Marine Corps, and it helped define my life.”
Hurley was 20 and had just finished his first year of college, but he says he was not a dedicated student so he joined the Marine Corps, even though he knew he would likely end up in Vietnam.
“I did a lot of partying, and my marks weren’t that good,” Hurley recalls. “I got tired of listening to the rioting and the demonstrations. They were not supporting the troops.”
Hurley, now 71 and a Chicopee resident, signed up in February 1969 and in less than a year was carrying a M60 machine gun in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.
About four months after he arrived in Vietnam, Hurley was stationed at Landing Zone Ross when the base was overrun by the North Vietnamese in January 1970. “I was in our foxhole, and they were dressed as Marines. ... One threw a satchel charge in the hole. It blew out my eardrums, and I had shrapnel up and down my body,” Hurley recounts
The Purple Heart, a medal no one wants to receive, was awarded to him after that attack.
This is the second year of the Honor Mission, which stems from the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, and is an effort focused on recognizing some of the nearly 2 million medal recipients from across the country, said Robert Driscoll, communications associate for the mission.
Honorees and a guest are treated to a multiday all-expense paid trip to the Hall of Honor, which is located just outside of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Activities include tours of the newly renovated museum, the academy and the historic Washington’s Headquarters. It also includes other tributes to the recipients, he said.
The Honor Mission, which selects one Purple Heart recipient from each state for the award per year. The trip is scheduled to begin on April 26, but that date is tentative because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Driscoll.
The honorees are nominated by different people and over the past two years they have ranged from World War II and Korean War veterans to those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Driscoll says it is hoped the Honor Mission also calls attention to the Purple Heart Hall of Honor and the effort to create a public database of all the recipients of the Purple Heart.
“So many have such incredible stories. So many veterans have come back and given so much to their communities,” he says.
After recovering from his wounds, Hurley returned to combat duty in Vietnam, but a year later, on the day before he was scheduled to return home, a second and a worst disaster struck. Hurley was in a Jeep in May 1971 when it was struck by an allied truck that had been ambushed and careened out of control.
“I was glad I survived,” he says.
He was airlifted to a hospital where it took him months to recover from his injuries. He did not receive a second Purple Heart from the crash because it was an accident with allied troops.
After a year of recovering, he returned to college and received his bachelor’s degree with the idea of becoming a teacher, but soon learned during his student teaching that the profession wasn’t for him. Hurley returned to school and received his master’s degree in business administration.
For decades he worked in sales at several companies, retiring a few years ago after working for 3M, a “fantastic company” covering a territory in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Western Massachusetts.
He and his wife, Gail, have three sons.
Hurley also has volunteered for years at multiple veterans organizations, holding leadership positions in the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Marine Corps League, the American Legion, the Disabled Veterans of America and the Vietnam Veterans of America. He has also spent a lot of time at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and is currently an active member of the Holyoke Home Coalition, which is pushing for a major renovation and expansion of the home after the pandemic spread through the home unchecked infecting 75% of the veterans, killing 77.
“I don’t think veterans get the credit for what they have done, 3% of the country joins the military and we have to give our veterans a little more respect,” he said. “I’m here to help other veterans and help support them.”
It was in the midst of his volunteer work with other veterans that, Hurley says, he realized his wartime experiences had not left him completely. He was helping out the Marine Corps Toys for Tots a few years ago when someone asked him where he was being treated for his PSTD and his response was, “I don’t have PSTD.” Soon after, someone else asked him the same question.
Surprised, Hurley says he asked his wife what she thought. Her response was that he had become very argumentative and had not been acting like the man she had known for years. That is when he sought out counseling at the West Springfield Veterans Center, which offers a variety of services for veterans including group therapy, art therapy and activities such as equestrian and canoeing to help veterans.
“It is a lifelong journey,” he said. “I didn’t have PSTD until after I retired. I no longer have to work every day, my three sons are on their own and all the stress has been eliminated.”
His therapist explained that the phenomenon is not unusual. When veterans have time to relax all the memories and feelings they have pushed back for years while being distracted by work and family life come roaring back to take revenge, Hurley said.
“You don’t see a combat veteran talking about his combat because no one can relate,” he said.
Brian Willette, the commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart of Massachusetts, was the first person from the Bay State to be selected for the Honor Mission. When he returned, he knew he wanted to nominate Hurley for the award, Willette says.
“I feel this is made for the Vietnam vet, and I wanted to send one,” says Willette, who served in Afghanistan. “This is a long-overdue honor for them. We got plenty of thanks when we returned.”
Meanwhile, the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart is working to get as many medal recipients enrolled on the Purple Heart Award recipient database. The Purple Heart was created in 1932 and between 1.7 and 1.8 million medals have been issued including those which were granted retroactively to World War I Veterans, Willette said.
Registration can be completed online at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor website.