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Korean War veteran receives Purple Heart after 62-year wait

When an admiral pinned a Purple Heart to the blazer of Army veteran Charles B. Elder on Monday, it was a moment for which he had waited more than 60 years.

"I have been asking myself: What is the happiest day of my life?" Elder said before a packed hall next to the Jacksonville Senior Center in Phoenix. "The day I married Betty 51 years ago and this day are even."

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Elder, 87, was serving in the Korean War in 1951 when he was captured and subjected to two years of brutal treatment in a prisoner of war camp. He's mostly blocked out memories of the experience, he said, but he always held out hope of receiving a Purple Heart to mark what he had been through.

Elder is among many veterans who wait years or even decades to get medals they have earned. For those who fought in World War II or Korea, time is running out.

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John Bircher, a spokesman for the nonprofit Military Order of the Purple Heart, said he hears of new cases regularly.

"Every single day, there's a report of somebody from the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam getting a Purple Heart that they never [initially] received," he said.

The Purple Heart, established by George Washington to honor the sacrifices his soldiers made during the Revolutionary War, is unlike other military decorations because it is to be awarded automatically to any service member who meets the qualifying criteria.

Service members who are wounded as a result of enemy action and are treated by a medic are eligible to receive the Purple Heart. But Bircher said there are reasons people don't end up getting one. Sometimes paperwork gets lost. Other times, a service member who was wounded during a fight in which others were killed feels that applying for the decoration would be wrong.

Elder said that in his case, he was told after his release that the military had simply run out medals. After he left the Army, he said, his efforts to get the Purple Heart were met with indifference until last November, when Rear Adm. Dale E. Horan went to Baltimore County to speak at the senior center.

When Horan learned of Elder's situation, he tracked down the right office at the Defense Department to handle the case and kept checking up. Within a few months, the Purple Heart had been approved.

"In six months, he was able to achieve what I had not been able to in 50 years," Elder said.

Elder grew up on a farm in Baltimore County and enlisted in the Army in 1949. He was sent to Korea as an infantryman. The United States was fighting in support of the South Korean government of Syngman Rhee against Chinese- and Soviet-backed communists from the North.

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Horan said the sides were battling across hillsides, fighting only to gain an advantage in peace talks, when Elder's unit was encircled on Heartbreak Ridge and captured.

Elder had been struck in the hip by friendly artillery fire. He said he walked with his captors as far as he could and, when he couldn't go on, was carried by oxcart.

At some point, he said, the Koreans performed surgery on his wound in a crude operating theater — leaving it stinking and infected.

Elder was then handed over to Chinese forces at a prison camp. Horan said Elder and other soldiers had not been trained to handle the brutal conditions in the prisons.

Elder endured interrogations, psychological torture and forced labor, Horan said. After an escape attempt, Elder was put in solitary confinement.

Prisoners could send and receive letters, but communications with the outside were limited and heavily censored. For long periods, Elder's family had no idea whether he was dead or alive.

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The 1953 armistice ended the fighting and provided for the liberation of prisoners. The war has never been formally concluded, and North and South Korea remain separated by a heavily patrolled demilitarized zone.

Elder's release was announced in August 1953, but his father did not know he had been freed until a reporter called.

The conflict in Korea, wedged between World War II and the Vietnam War, is known as "the Forgotten War." Horan said it was important to honor those who fought, were injured and who prospered despite their experiences.

After the war, Elder worked on the family farm, took classes at Baltimore Engineering Institute, and worked for Westinghouse and AAI. He retired in 1991.

"He's a true hero who survived exceptionally horrific conditions and marched on to contribute to this country, our way of life, his community and his family," Horan said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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