Three area veterans received combat service medals during a ceremony in Westminster yesterday, awards they earned almost a lifetime ago fighting for their country on battlefields in Europe and Asia.
Edward Ritz of Manchester, Ralph Denton Sr. of Street and the family of Joseph Reitz, who died six weeks ago at age 79, accepted the awards from Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Republican from the 6th District, amid applause, snapshots and cheers from their families.
"These men were great not only for their deeds, but because they were so humble," said Douglas Reitz, a sergeant in the Maryland State Police. "I wish my father could see these medals and that we could have seen him getting them."
Virginia Reitz said her husband knew he would be receiving the Bronze Star and "had a speech ready." The World War II veteran was drafted at 18 and served in the Army Infantry during some of the fiercest fighting in Europe. His sense of patriotism was so strong that he tried to re-enlist when the Korean War broke out, she said.
"They waited too long for these men," said Virginia Reitz. "Too many of them are gone."
Her husband of 57 years rarely spoke about his wartime experiences, she said. But, last year, at their urging of his sons, Joseph Reitz did write down some memories.
"We finally got a feel for what these men went through and why they earned these medals," said Joseph Reitz III said.
Douglas Reitz bought his father a copy of the movie Saving Private Ryan, "but he walked away from it saying that it was much worse than that," he said. "It wasn't until I read his obit that I realized all the things he had done and seen. ... He had other medals, but he kept them away in a blue box."
The veterans applied for their service medals about one year ago, when they realized they were still eligible to receive them.
4 years in the jungle
Ritz, 83, came to the ceremony with three generations of his family, including his 3- month-old great-grandson, Quinn McIver. Ritz's daughter, Pat Kellam, frequently hugged him during the ceremony and told him how proud she was of him and his five new medals.
Ritz, an Army signal corpsman, spent nearly four years in the service during World War II, more than a year of that time in the Pacific island jungles intercepting and decoding enemy messages. His strongest memories are of the stifling heat, he said.
"We are going out to dinner to celebrate, and then I am going to frame these medals," Ritz said. "I waited a long time for them."
'A lifer' in the Army
Denton joined the Army at 16 and "became a lifer," he said. He served in Korea and Vietnam providing anti-aircraft support for ground troops.
"We actually spent more time on the frontlines than the infantry," Denton said.
He finished his Army career as a recruiter. After his retirement in 1968, Denton went back to college, earned four degrees and launched a second career as an actor. Among his credits are two episodes of The West Wing. He played an Israeli diplomat on one episode that aired a few weeks ago and a Korean War veteran in the first season of the drama about the White House.
"It was eerie to see myself buried at Arlington on film," Denton said. "Even though I will be someday."
The medal received yesterday brought Denton's total of military awards to seven. He wore miniature replicas of the other six on his jacket yesterday.
Bartlett also presented Denton, Ritz and Reitz's family an American flag that has flown over the U.S. Capitol.
The families lingered after the ceremony to reminisce, pose for photos and show off the medals. Ritz's granddaughter, Kelley McIver, and Douglas Reitz recalled their own days together at North Carroll High School.
"We always tried to get my grandfather to come to school and talk about his experience, but he never would," McIver said. "It was almost as though he thought it would be disrespectful to speak of it."
Kellam clutched family photos, several of her mother, Marie, who died last year. The Ritzes were married for 61 years.
"She was a war bride, and I wanted a piece of her here with us today," Kellam said. "This generation really saved the world, and they showed us that there are causes worth dying for."
The Ritz, Kellam and McIver families posed with Bartlett for another family photo. A beaming Ritz held his medals against the backdrop of an American flag.
"Make sure you get everybody in," Ritz said to the congressman's photographer.