On Purple Heart Day, honoring those who have received the nation's oldest military decoration
By SHAUN RYAN | The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. | Published: August 7, 2017
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — January 16, 1967, is a day Joe Sanchez will never forget. It was his 20th birthday. And it was the day a grenade nearly ensured there would be no 21st.
Sanchez was a U.S. Army radio telephone operator deployed in Vietnam near Phan Thiet when he found himself in a firefight with some Viet Cong. As his platoon went into battle, he sent up a prayer: "Lord, it's my birthday; I'm not ready."
Suddenly, an enemy soldier hurled a grenade at the platoon. Sanchez felt a burning sensation in his arms, legs and abdomen.
Then, everything seemed to slow down. He later described the scene around him as something from "The Twilight Zone."
Sanchez watched as the platoon's forward observer tumbled down an embankment, looking "like a store mannequin." Leaves blown from trees overhead were falling so slowly, they appeared to be hovering.
Though he was aware of what was going on around him, he was unable to move.
"I thought, 'Where am I?'" he said.
The future New York City police officer and author soon found himself at a field hospital in Nha Trang along with others who were wounded at the same time. Among the injured, he saw the enemy soldier who had thrown the grenade.
Today, Sanchez lives in Deltona. He has reconnected with three other Americans wounded in that explosion more than 50 years ago and, according to his account published online, remembers his 20th birthday as "the first day of the rest of my life."
Sanchez is also among 1.7 million recipients of the Purple Heart.
Purple Heart Day
Monday is Purple Heart Day. The oldest military decoration — originally known as the Badge of Military Merit — was established by Gen. George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782.
On July 20, Gov. Rick Scott added to the national observance, officially proclaiming Aug. 7 of each year as Florida Purple Heart Day.
Upon hearing this, Sanchez called it "a great idea."
For John Mendez, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army, the proclamation represents recognition. He pointed out the importance of such acknowledgement, given the struggles of so many veterans who today find themselves homeless or in need of help, such as psychological care.
Mendez was wounded twice and therefore has a Purple Heart with an oak leaf cluster, which represents two separate decorations. A resident of the Emory L. Bennett Veterans Nursing Home in Daytona Beach, Mendez served in the Vietnam War, the Panama Invasion and U.S. military action in Somalia.
He was first wounded in Vietnam on Aug. 14, 1966. That time, he took shrapnel in his leg. He was injured by shrapnel the second time as well, but on that occasion the wound was to his neck.
"When I got hit, I didn't know where it came from," he said. "I just got hit."
The impact knocked him out.
His was wounded on March 7, 1967, during Operation Junction City, one of the largest U.S. operations of the war. It had begun on Feb. 22 and continued for 82 days. More than 1,500 Americans were injured and nearly 300 were killed in the operation.
Mendez's service has earned him the respect of his fellow soldiers.
"He's a hero," said Steve Lunsford, a Purple Heart recipient living in Palm Coast. "John's the real deal."
Lunsford said he was glad the governor made the proclamation, especially as a way of recognizing those soldiers who received the Purple Heart posthumously.
Lunsford and Felix Garcia, who now lives in Texas, founded the Palm Coast Chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart in 2008.
Garcia, who served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq, called the proclamation "a big win for Purple Heart recipients, especially for Vietnam veterans."
But he said Scott can do more. Garcia has helped Texas to become a Purple Heart State and would like to see the same for Florida. He said that status allows the state to use the Purple Heart on its letterheads and website and identifies it as a veteran-friendly state.
Jack Howell was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps when he found himself in Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive.
He quickly became accustomed to the enemy's practice of harassment and interdiction. Any hour of the day or night, they would lob a few rounds at the Americans, wait, lob a few more, and finally strike with a barrage of weaponry.
For this reason, the soldiers had a bunker in which to seek refuge.
Howell recalls how he once came up out of the bunker after such an attack to find a huge piece of B-40 rocket round on his pillow.
"It smashed its way through some of the sandbags, through the metal on the (building's) outside," he said. "So, if I'd been there at that particular time, it would have taken my head off."
But one day in February 1968, Howell didn't get to the bunker quickly enough.
"I remember seeing an artillery round hit near some troops," he said. "They were evaporated. Couldn't even find a boot. It was horrible. Mayhem like you could never explain."
Running for cover, he was hit on the hands and under his chin.
"It ripped my throat open," he recalled.
He went over to the medical unit, which he described as "swamped." A corpsman stitched him up and moved on to more critical cases.
Due to the chaos, records were lost, so Howell didn't immediately get his Purple Heart. Feeling his wounds were small next to so many fatalities, he didn't immediately pursue the matter.
Later, back in the States, Howell found some Marines who could substantiate his injuries and he was presented his Purple Heart at last.
Of the governor's proclamation, Howell, who now lives in Palm Coast, said that, though it's from a politician, "it's recognition, and it's a form of educating the public."
Stolen Valor Act
There is no national list of Purple Heart recipients. Perhaps this has contributed to some pretenders who can purchase medals online for less than $50.
The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 forbids making fraudulent claims about military service with intent to obtain money or some other tangible benefit. But that leaves a loophole for people Howell calls "Walter Mittys" — after the James Thurber character who casts himself in imaginary, heroic roles.
"It's insulting to everybody who has ever served honorably and certainly to those who have given their lives," Howell said.
About the Purple Heart
The Purple Heart is the oldest military decoration granted in the United States. It was established by Gen. George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782, at Newburgh, New York, during the Revolutionary War.
• Forbidden by the Continental Congress from granting commissions and promotions in rank to recognize merit, Washington created what was then called the Badge of Military Merit.
• The practice of awarding the badge fell dormant after the war until it was revived on May 28, 1932, and awarded to U.S. Army and Air Corps veterans of World War I. By this time, it was known as the Purple Heart.
• In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt extended the award to members of the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. It was also approved to be granted posthumously.
• The website for the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is thepurpleheart.com.
• The website for the Military Order of the Purple Heart is purpleheart.org.
— Shaun Ryan
©2017 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.
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At Wiesbaden, Germany, in October, 1983, Marine Cpl. Joseph Schneider of Pensacola, Fla., manages a smile in spite of severe injuries suffered in the terrorist bombing in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed 241 American servicemembers. The heavily-bandaged Schneider's Purple Heart medal was pinned to his pillow by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. P.X. Kelley.
BOB CROCKETT/STARS AND STRIPES