FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WOWO) – Every August 7th, since 2014, Americans across the country have observed National Purple Heart Day. The Purple Heart medal is awarded to service members wounded or killed during combat while serving.
On August 6th, 2023, the eve of Purple Heart Day, 102 Purple Heart veterans gathered at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum for a banquet hosted in their honor. Family, friends, guardians and other distinguished guests packed the room in anticipation of sending these Purple Heart heroes to Washington D.C. for a first of its kind Purple Heart Honor Flight funded entirely by WOWO radio listeners. On December 9th, 2022, WOWO’s Penny Pitch campaign raised $207,000 for Honor Flight Northeast Indiana. The donations enabled HFNEI to put together the largest Purple Heart recipient Honor Flight to date.
The banquet included a special plaque presentation for WOWO, a dinner and a keynote speech delivered by retired Col. Greg Gadson.
As the banquet came to a close, the 102 Purple Heart Veterans loaded multiple buses for a hotel stay on the northside of Fort Wayne. On Monday, August 7th, National Purple Heart Day, these champions received a motorcycle and police escort from their hotels to the 122nd Fighter Wing. Crowds gathered nearby on N. Clinton Street, just south of the MLK Jr. bridge, as the convoy passed by.
Once at the base, after a quick photo-op, prayer and breakfast it was wheels up at 07:00AM for our nations capital.
The first stop on the trip was at the U.S. Navy Memorial for a special wreath laying ceremony. “They called me late last week. When I got that phone call I felt very honored.” Sheldon Wright of South Bend, a Vietnam veteran representing the Navy said. Wright alongside Joseph “Chief” Zurbuch of South Bend, also representing the Navy, presented the wreath. “I too felt very honored,” said Zurbuch. Both received their Purple Hearts after taking shrapnel due to explosions. “We will be friends after today,” said Wright.
Shortly after the wreath laying ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial the 102 Purple Heart veterans made their way to Memorial Row. They visited the World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial a very special pinning ceremony took place. The words, “Vietnam War Veteran” were inscribed on the front of the pin. On the back, “A grateful nation thanks you.”
Directly after the pinning ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial the veterans headed for the US Marine Corps War Memorial for another wreath laying ceremony. This time the Purple Heart wreath was presented by four Vietnam veterans who served in the Marines. “Oorah” they all shouted shortly after the Honor Guard presentation of Colors.
Next was a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Moments before watching the Changing of the Guard, the only female Purple Heart veteran on the trip was honored. Cecilia Fravel is an Army veteran and served from 2007-2014. She was presented with a portfolio by dignitaries with the Military Women’s Memorial. Inside was a copy of Fravel’s page that is now being displayed in the National Database for the Women’s Memorial.
Fravel also joined three of her fellow Purple Heart recipients for a Purple Heart wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
As the day started to come to a close, dinner was served at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. Numerous veterans took their last moments in Washington DC to finish their meals and reflect on their trip. “It’s hard to put into words. There were moments today I was angry. I only suffered from PTSD. Some of these other guys here had it way worse… There were also moments today when I felt overcome with sadness,” said an Army veteran who served in Vietnam and asked not to be named.
As the 102 Purple Heart veterans boarded back on their plane to head for Fort Wayne, they each received one final mail call. Inside each mail package were dozens of cards, handwritten notes and colored pages from thankful Americans young and old. Veteran Arley Higgen could be overheard telling a fellow Purple Heart recipient, “Wow. How spoiled are we?!” Little did Higgen know just how spoiled he was about to be.
During the Purple Heart flight back to Fort Wayne, a crowd of nearly 5,000 people gathered at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum to welcome their heroes home. As the 102 Purple Heart veterans exited their buses they were met with fanfare, flags, decorated signs, applause and cheers. They were met with the “welcome home” they each deserved.
You can view the welcome home party here.
* Multiple photographers were on board for this flight. They graciously donated their time and will be donating all their photos for print. WOWO will share a full gallery of their photographs later this month.