A slight uproar resounded around the nation in response to Donald Trump’s comments at a recent rally when he was presented with what he assumed was a Purple Heart: “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.” It seems especially appropriate to write about Purple Hearts since Aug. 7, we Americans honored Purple Heart recipients.
Created by Gen. George Washington in 1782, the Purple Heart is the oldest American military decoration, and today’s medal features the bust of Washington and his family’s coat of arms.
My experience in interviewing — or being in the room while my students were interviewing — over 100 military veterans in the past few years made me reflect upon those with Purple Hearts. I called Vietnam veteran John Looker (U.S. Army, Specialist 4, 1st Cavalry, 2nd battalion, 5th Infantry) to ask him to detail how he got his. Looker has received two, and his third Purple Heart is pending.
Looker served the country from 1967 to 1969, and Trump attended college from 1964 to 1968, where he received four student deferments. After initially being declared fit for service in October of 1968, Trump received a 1-Y medical deferment and has indicated that deferment was caused by “heel spurs.” In 1969, he had a high number in the draft lottery and, thus, was not called to serve.
Looker recalls that it was March 4, 1969, in the A Shau Valley in Vietnam. He and his unit were in a firefight when an exploding grenade came too close to him and peppered his back with shrapnel. All of the shrapnel could not be removed, so Looker now sets off alarms at airport security checkpoints. Purple Heart #1.
In another firefight two days later, March 6, Looker took shrapnel to one of his legs. Looker reports, “ Army medic Mike ‘Doc’ Morgan pulled it out and bandaged me up.” Purple Heart #2.
Move forward to March 9, 1969, and Looker and his unit were in the Battle of Angel’s Wing. They were on patrol and had set up for the evening. According to Looker, It was 12 midnight when they started taking fire from the North Vietnamese. As the battle continued, the enemy surrounded them in a rice paddy. There was a ditch nearby, and the unit was able to take cover there as the fight continued. At 4 a.m., Looker was shot in his right shoulder. Medic Morgan “shot me up with morphine and from 4:30 until 4:45, I was able to fight using my left hand.”
Looker says, “I credit Billy Baham with saving my life. We were running low on ammo, and he went back into the rice paddy and collected the unused ammo from our fallen comrades and got back to the ditch.
“Daylight came at about 6 a.m., and Cobras (Army gunships) came in and were able to hold off the North Vietnamese until Medivacs could get in. Of the 26 in our unit, six were killed and 18 were wounded. Of the unit that was fighting with us, seven were killed and 19 were wounded.”
Looker was in the second group that was Medivacked to a field hospital. From there, he was flown to Guam where there were trauma surgeons. After Guam, he was transported to a military hospital at Valley Forge, Pa., where he was hospitalized for three months.
It’s not easy for Looker to talk about that week, and it’s difficult for me to listen. I’ve gone to the wall in D.C., where the names of the men who died that day in the Battle of Angel’s Wing are etched in the granite (Panel 23 West).
Rick Spencer of the Warren County Veteran Service is helping Looker with the paperwork as he submits his claim to the Veterans Administration for Purple Heart #3.
Of Trump’s comments, Looker says, “Very poor judgment, made a mockery of that award. Didn’t know the sacrifices people had to go through to earn those Purple Hearts, and people with Purple Hearts don’t want to talk about it.”
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.