Families seek honor for soldiers killed in non-hostile action
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Richard Perez made just one request when he said goodbye to his son on a tarmac at March Air Reserve Base just east of here.
“Get back here no matter what,” Perez told Rich Jr.
Six months later, and one week shy of his return from Iraq, the 19-year-old Marine was killed when a truck accidentally crushed him.
At the funeral, Perez asked a military officer about his son’s Purple Heart – and was told the military issues the honor only to those killed or wounded in combat. There would be no special medal for Richard Perez Jr.
“These are honors, the highest things that can be bestowed on these guys,” Perez Sr. said recently. “That’s all you’re really left with.”
Following his son’s death in February 2005, Perez joined a small but growing group of families who are petitioning Congress to create an alternative medal honoring those killed in a war zone but away from combat. In Iraq and Afghanistan, that amounts to more than 600 men and women – more than 20 percent of the deaths so far.
Leading the effort is Eleanor Dachtler, who lost her 19-year-old son during an insurgent attack in Iraq and received her son’s Purple Heart posthumously. Currently, the families of those who die non-combat deaths say they receive medals honoring their loved one’s service, but nothing recognizing their death.
“Anybody who goes over there and gives their life for their country deserves to be recognized,” said Dachtler, whose son, Lance Cpl. Nicholas Anderson of Las Vegas, was killed in November 2004. “How can you sit there and say one person’s life is less valuable than another person’s life?”
Memorial Day provides her another compelling reminder.
“If we’re going to remember them, let’s do it right,” she said.
Dachtler has been urging people to contact their congressional representatives about the proposed new medal. And she has enlisted Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has instructed his staff to speak with the Pentagon about it.
A Defense Department spokeswoman declined comment on the families’ campaign. “Since specific legislation has not be proposed as of yet, we cannot speculate on what our views may or may not be,” Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said by e-mail.
Military brass could worry that awarding a new medal for current conflicts might send a mixed message to veterans of previous wars.
“If you’re going to recognize non-combat deaths in this war, what about Vietnam? What about Korea?” said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank in Alexandria, Va. “It raises a host of questions I’m certain the armed forces would like to avoid.”
It’s also a dilemma for combat veterans.
“When a family loses a loved one it’s very difficult to discuss what they should or should not be awarded,” said Ray Funderburk, spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
The Virginia-based veterans service organization was founded in 1932 – the same year the U.S. War Department revived the Purple Heart, which was first established by George Washington.
An estimated 500,000 people alive today have been awarded a Purple Heart, according to Funderburk. The group, he said, would likely not oppose a separate medal for those killed in non-hostile action.
“I don’t think it would affect the nature of the Purple Heart or the meaning of the Purple Heart,” Funderburk said. “But it would have to be something other than a Purple Heart.”
The families of those killed in non-combat incidents have said they do not want to change the criteria of the Purple Heart. What they do want is a medal to honor their loved one’s sacrifice.
“He died in honor, serving his country,” said Frank Guastaferro, a Vietnam veteran whose 27-year-old son Daniel died in January 2005 when his Humvee plunged into a canal in Iraq. “I am very proud of him for what he accomplished.”
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