In August 1967, Wilson was struck in the leg by shrapnel or carbine round during Operation Cochise. Twelve days later, he returned to the field.
“I went back to the field with stitches in my leg,” said the 66-year-old Taylorsville resident. “… The day that I returned to the field I was walking, fording a river with equipment over my head, going out to an ambush site where a Marine had been killed. … But I was wading through a river with stitches in my leg.”
For that, he was awarded his first Purple Heart. Within a month, he received a second.
“For me, it was my single worst night in Vietnam. It was where I got my second Purple Heart. I got hit by a ricochet in the back,” Wilson said of the battle near Tamky Province, Vietnam, that killed 28 Marines and wounded 72.
On Thursday, Wilson was among a dozen or so local Purple Heart recipients recognized by area officials on Purple Heart Day in Georgia.
Spearheaded by State Rep. Christian Coomer, R-Cartersville, Thursday’s ceremony grew out of efforts to honor those wounded in combat.
“Gov. Nathan Deal, who is an Army veteran, signed the law creating Aug. 7 as Purple Heart Day in Georgia,” Coomer said. “We wanted to really make the day special for local Purple Heart recipients and their families. When my assistant, Debra Conley, started putting the event together, we had a lot of interest from community leaders eager to participate.”
During the service, Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor and Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini signed a proclamation marking Aug. 7, 2014, as Purple Heart Day in Bartow. They were followed by recognition from U.S. District 11 Rep. Phil Gingrey and Congressman-elect Barry Loudermilk.
“… I’m proud of our veterans we’re honoring today in Bartow County who received the Purple Heart,” Gingrey said. “I just learned this morning this is the oldest recognition going back to Gen. [George] Washington in 1782. That would be even before we had our first Congress, so that’s pretty darn impressive and it’s quite an honor.
“It’s my pleasure to honor the Purple Heart award recipients from generations going back, of course, going back to World War II, the so-called Korean conflict, Vietnam and, of course, these wars on terror that are going on now, and to think that just yesterday, the day before yesterday, a two-star major general could be literally assassinated in Afghanistan and all we have done to help those people have some bit of freedom and yet this is still happening.”
Loudermilk recalled the Purple Heart being the mark of a leader during his time in the Air Force.
“When I was in the Air Force, I remember at some point in training we were talking about combat roles …, and one thing I remember the instructor saying one way to measure how effective a leader is how few Purple Hearts your people receive. It was one of those medals you didn’t want to receive, but those who received it were due the honor and respect because the sacrifice they received,” he said. “My dad was a medic in World War II, and one of the things he would emphasize to me, he would say, ‘Son, every time we went out in the field, the people we were helping was getting a Purple Heart. My job was to make sure it wasn’t posthumously.’”
“It just brings the reality of how significant and [serious] this is, the role that a combat soldier, sailor, airman, Coast Guardsman, a Marine, what they face when they go into combat because the reality is what they’re doing is not for themselves, but is for future generations,” Loudermilk continued. “And the fact that we can stand here today and have this ceremony and we have the freedom of an election process to go and elect those who represent us and we still have a semblance of a nation that is built upon freedom is because of the sacrifice of our veterans and especially those who have been wounded in action, and it’s proper for us to honor you here today.”
Coomer echoed the sentiment.
“Times of remembrance, like Purple Heart Day, remind us that our freedom and the burden of leadership we have as a nation and a people is heavy; and people who hate our freedom, our foundation, our Christian heritage, and the prosperity it has brought are ever trying to take those things from us,” he said. “Ronald Regan said we are a city set on a hill, a beacon of light and hope to people around the world. That is why despots and dictators across the globe want to tear us down, so that they can eliminate the very hope of freedom in the people under their tyranny. That is why all these heroes are so special and deserving of honor.”
Regardless of the time that passes, Wilson said the memories of how a Purple Heart is earned never goes away.
“Lots of water under the bridge but it’s something that doesn’t ever go away, as those guys would tell you,” he said. “It’s not your average thing … Everybody saw something different. No soldiers saw the same things. … Did I want another Purple Heart? No. I didn’t want the two that I got, but I felt blessed that they were no worse than they were.”
Recognized Thursday for their receipt of a Purple Heart were: Bob Poston, U.S. Army, Vietnam; James P. Bates, U.S. Army, World War II; Anthony “Tony” Wilson, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Ellis Cowart, U.S. Army, WWII; Bobby Gayton, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Zach Choate, U.S. Army, Operation Iraqi Freedom; James L. Scoggins, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, killed in action in Korea; N.C. Moore, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam; Gerald D. Harris, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Daniel Weathers, U.S. Marine Corps, Operation Iraqi Freedom; John Earwood, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Bill Wilson, U.S. Army, Vietnam; James Parker, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Steve Wilson, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam; Greg Parham, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam; Roger Moore, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Jerry Byess, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Danny McPherson, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Gary R. Cline, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Larry Touchstone, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Chuck Pesta, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Jimmie L. Hammontree, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam; Douglas Cole, U.S. Army, Vietnam; Roy Sikes, U.S. Marine Corps, Vietnam; Donald Wilson, U.S. Army, Vietnam; and John D. Willis, U.S. Army, Vietnam.
An exact list of all Purple Heart recipients is not available through the U.S. government or the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
Georgia’s VA reported 8,141 veterans in Bartow County as of September 2013. The state Department of Motor Vehicles reported 8,037 general Purple Heart licenses plates issued in Georgia.
“In researching the history of the Purple Heart decoration, we found that records of Purple Heart awards have not been well maintained historically. Part of the reason is that many Purple Heart awards are issued in the field or in combat hospitals where maintaining accurate personnel records may not always be a priority,” Coomer said. “Consequently, there was no definitive public source for determining how many Purple Heart recipients live in Bartow County. In an effort to honor everyone we could, we asked for public response to let us know who we could include in the ceremony. We were contacted by 39 Purple Heart recipients or their families.”
Although there are no specific plans to again honor Purple Heart recipients in future years, Coomer will honor all veterans in an annual event this fall.
“On Oct. 30, I will be hosting my fifth annual Veterans Salute at Bartow-Carver Park, Red Top Mountain State Park. It is a patriotic evening that includes a casual meal, bluegrass music and great speakers,” he said. “… Attendees are invited to make donations at the door, which are distributed to local veteran and military support organizations, like Vietnam Veterans of Bartow County, Patriot Guard Riders and Etowah Valley Young Marines. In previous years, as many as 400 people have attended to support and celebrate our veterans.”
Whether someone received a medal for military service or simple served their country is enough for Wilson, who said outward appearance and bravado does not a hero make.
“Heroes are made from within.”