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Archive for Monday, July 10, 2000

Purple Heart Bridge honors veterans

I was lucky … A lot of men didn’t make it back’

July 10, 2000

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— A new bridge across the Arkansas River has been dedicated as the "Purple Heart Bridge," honoring Americans injured in military action.

As service anthems played, about 20 holders of the medal -- soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen -- marched across the bridge Saturday to cheers from about 150 relatives, friends and supporters.

"Thank you!" came shouts from the crowd. "Thank you very much!" "We love you!"

Those on hand for the ceremony included Dale Gregory, 76, of Wichita, a World War II paratrooper wounded on a jump during the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

"I looked at my hand and saw that my thumb was shot off, and the forefinger was hanging down on one side, and the middle finger was down on the other," recalled Gregory.

Saturday's ceremony -- in heat topping 90 degrees -- was hard on several of the older soldiers. The event was halted briefly when Ramon Reyes, 67, of Wellington, fainted after about a half-hour of standing at attention as a flag bearer. Revived by a former military medic, Reyes appeared to be fine later but was taken away in an ambulance as a precaution.

The Sedgwick County Commission decided to name the bridge for the medal presented to Americans wounded in action.

George Washington created the Purple Heart during the Revolutionary War to note extraordinary military merit by enlisted men, said Darell Downing, a veteran who served as host for the dedication.

Originally a silk patch sewn on the uniform, it gave the bearer the right to pass sentries without challenge. The decoration marked a departure from the military tradition of the day, that only officers were eligible for decorations, Downing said.

The decoration vanished from the nation's military honors after the Revolution. It was reinstated in 1931, at the insistence of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to honor the bicentennial of Washington's birthday.

The reinstated decoration, a medal bearing Washington's portrait on a heart of purple enamel, was designed by Elizabeth Will, an employee in the Office of the Quartermaster General. Her design has changed little since.

For most of those honored Saturday, earning the medal was a turning point in their lives.

Retired Army Col. O.J. Brock of Wichita, who stood guard with an M-1 rifle at Saturday's ceremony, began his military career as a 19-year-old assistant tank driver in Gen. George Patton's march across France in World War II.

That career ended with a leg wound he suffered when enemy troops peppered his jeep with rifle fire during the Korean War.

"There were 85 holes in my Jeep, and they killed my driver," said Brock, 74. Although the wound has made it hard to get around ever since, he added, "I was lucky. A lot of men didn't make it back."

But the day wasn't all serious. It was laced together by soldierly comradeship and punctuated by moments of levity.

William Waslyk, a commander in the Military Order of the Purple Heart, good-naturedly dressed down fellow Korean War veteran Carroll G. Everist, who wore a modern uniform as he held the organization's banner.

"That's not the khaki we wore, ours were darker," Waslyk told Everist.

"You can fire me, then," Everist replied with a smile.

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