Wars change, but the challenge to care for veterans remains the same.
By David Leone
WAKE FOREST — Command Sgt. Major Francis DeBois Jr. tells a story of seeing good friends blown apart, of going back to find and recover them and suffering a mortar wound himself, lacerating his side.
It happened just over one year ago in Afghanistan, but the story could have been told by any veteran of Vietnam, Korea, or World War II.
Many of them were in attendance Saturday, at the fifth annual Purple Heart Dinner held at Wake Forest Presbyterian Church, held in honor of those who fought and were wounded in action.
They are Jesse Torres, U.S, Marines, Vietnam; Patrick McIlvain, U.S. Army, Afghanistan; William Bailey, U.S. Navy, WWII, Korea and Vietnam; Tarsha Burroughs, U.S. Army, Iraq and others.
DeBois, a highly trained and decorated paratrooper with the U.S. Army, served his country for 30 years. He called to attention issues facing troops serving overseas and the problems they face when they come home.
Whether it be family troubles, financial issues, post-traumatic stress disorder or physical hardships from injuries received in combat, it’s important that Americans don’t turn a blind eye to them just because combat operations are winding down, he said.
“I believe there are no obstacles that cannot be overcome,” he said. “These truly are exceptional events that let you Purple Heart recipients know that there’s still love, that there’s still care. That, the more we do these things, we bring each other closer together.”
Addressing the veterans in the crowd, he added. “Thank you for your service. Thank you for answering the call that so few are willing to answer. Thank you for your sacrifices, for the hardship that you’ve endured, for the time you’ve spent away from your home, family and friends. And thank you for the blood, sweat and tears you shed while earning your purple heart.”
Some 300 people attended the dinner, including 38 recipients of the Purple Heart medal.
As each was named, they were honored by the Wake Forest High School Junior ROTC, who formed a receiving line with swords upraised, before escorting the veterans to their seats.
After the walk of honor, a prayer and the National Anthem, Purple Heart Foundation member and town commissioner Greg Harrington praised the project Troop 511 Scout Nicholas Anderson put together to attain the rank of Eagle.
“It wasn’t one of these, build a bridge, build that — he wanted to do something that would last a lifetime,” said Harrington.
With help of the Purple Heart Foundation and his fellow Scouts, Anderson interviewed a number of Purple Heart recipients on camera, about their experiences in the military and the hardships they endured, asking why they served and what advice they’d have for youth today. Anderson played a few clips of the oral histories for the audience.
One veteran recalled his drill instructor during basic training as “160 pounds of just angry muscle.” Another said he learned several things in the military, including that it’s okay to be afraid: “Even if you’re scared to death, if you can do what you’re supposed to do, you’re fine.”
And another said that to this day he has “a deep appreciation” for the things most people take for granted, including, “clean, cold water, a dry bed and enough food. Those things were for many months and months, luxuries in Vietnam.”
Reminding attendees of the hardships soldiers faced and the luxuries provided by freedom were central themes for the dinner. The other was simply to convey a heartfelt respect for the men and women who fought for their country.
During the blessing, Harrington, himself a Vietnam veteran, thanked God for “the men here and lady here who fought for our country. Maybe they didn’t raise their hand to receive a Purple Heart, Lord, but they were there, they did their duty, they knew what their duty was. And for that, we’re all grateful.”
For more photos from Wake Forest's Purple Heart dinner, see photos.wakeweekly.com.