By Tech. Sgt. Mike R. Smith, National Guard Bureau
NEW WINDSOR, N.Y. – Thousands of people, including members of the National Guard, gathered under a bright autumn sun here Nov. 10, the day before Veterans Day, to dedicate a lasting tribute to the nation’s recipient of the Purple Heart Medal.
Active duty, Guard and Reserve members, past and present combat veterans and their families, and political dignitaries gathered to dedicate the $6.5 million National Purple Heart Hall of Honor with patriotic speeches, traditional music, tours, a ribbon-cutting, and a fly-over by Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters.
Dignitaries included New York Gov. George Pataki, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, the New York National Guard’s adjutant general. Air National Guard members from the 105th Airlift Wing at nearby Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh helped direct the multitude of visitors.
“It is fitting that we gather today at this historic site to honor our veterans, show gratitude for their service, and educate others about their sacrifice in keeping our nation free,” said Taluto.
“Thanks to Gov. Pataki’s support, this hall of honor is appropriately located at the winter encampment of the Continental Army, the site where Gen. George Washington created America’s first military award,” Taluto added.
The speeches and music drifted through the crowd amid the crisp fall air and a rich smell of damp earth. The sounds of the old Continental Army came alive as Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Regiment Fife and Drum Corps played “Yankee Doodle.”
Purple Heart recipients from the New York Army National Guard smartly carried the colors into the military ceremony, military ceremony, and the U.S. Military Academy band from West Point played the anthems of all the military services.
The Purple Heart is rooted here. Washington created its predecessor, the Military Badge of Merit, five miles away in 1782. Today, more than 1.7 million service members are entitled to wear the Purple Heart. Approximately 600,000 of them are still alive.
To preserve their stories, state officials began a nationwide search for Purple Heart recipients in early 2006. To date, more than 12,000 have submitted their stories. They include combat stories from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The Hall continues to receive hundreds of stories each week, officials said.
The Hall cost $6.5 million to build. It was funded by New York and the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH). The MOPH is the only congressionally-chartered organization for combat veterans. While the Hall uses the term “national” in its title, it had not been officially sanctioned as such by the federal government at the time of the ceremony. Legislation to this effect is pending in Congress.
“This is for the real heroes: those who paid the ultimate price,” said Tom Parker, MOPH commander. Hundreds of MOPH members came to support the Hall, and their purple service caps were everywhere. It is proper and fitting that their stories be told, Parker said.
“I’m here for my buddies that did not come back,” said Sgt. Thompson O’Neal, Troop E, 108th Cavalry Regiment, Georgia Army National Guard.
O’Neal is a Purple Heart recipient who is considering submitting his story to the Hall. He wore his distinctive black U.S. Army cavalry hat with a wide brim and gold band. He said he was proud to bring with him the memory of 26 Georgia Army National Guard Soldiers from the 48th Brigade Combat Team who were killed in action in Iraq as well as to represent the cavalry and three men in his regiment who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“I returned from Iraq in May. I was wounded in the Triangle of Death,” O’Neal explained. The blast from an improvised explosive devise ripped into O’Neal’s face and left hand, breaking his front teeth, damaging his hearing and severely wounding his hand. He is undergoing physical therapy.
O’Neal and his wife, Deana, said they drove from Georgia to represent National Guard members who could not be there. “I also want to pay my respects to the ‘Greatest Generation,’’ O’Neal said.
“This is our day,” said New York State Senator Bill Larkin, a 23-year Army veteran who served during World War II and Korea. “This is to let the people know that these are the sacrifices that were made. America is free because of our fellow Americans who made that sacrifice.”
The Hall rests on a hillside overlooking the Catskill Mountains. It has several rooms, including a hallway dedicated solely to the medal. One place displays artifacts, artwork, and descriptions of the Continental Army that camped here. An artillery exhibit is on the lower level.
Fanned out along the Hall are 42 floor-to-ceiling panels that depict the nation’s major military engagements. Each panel, dating from 1775 to the present, gives the date of the engagement and the numbers of wounded and killed in action.
At the rear of the Hall, an interactive room provides three video-diary booths where viewers can watch and listen to videotaped interviews of Purple Heart recipients who lived to tell their stories. The videos are recorded on site.
“Thanks to them, we can understand the real meaning of their sacrifice,” states a sign at the entranceway sign. Additionally, four computer stations provide access to a database of Purple Heart documents, including family letters, and photographs.