By Kevin Fleming, ASC Public AffairsNovember 10, 2016
TAYLOR RIDGE, Ill. -- Army retired Master Sgt. Joe Whitley, 86, was formally presented with his Purple Heart medal during the Rockridge Junior High Veterans Day event, here, Nov. 10.
Whitley received two Purple Hearts from wounds inflicted during his service in Korea from May 1951 to July 1952. Whitley did not receive his awards until 1960 due to clerical errors on his discharge paperwork. He was discharged in 1956.
"My paperwork said I was wounded, but it did not say I had a Purple Heart," he said.
When he later applied for a government job, the error was identified, and Whitley received his awards in the mail. They were never formally presented to him, however.
About six decades later, Col. Grant Morris, chief, G-3/5/7 (Operations), U.S. Army Sustainment Command, presented Whitley with his award in front of more than 400 cheering students, fellow veterans and community members.
"I've waited 65 years for this," said Whitley. "I greatly, greatly appreciate that this has been finally presented in the proper manner."
Whitley served in the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. He fought in three operations, including Operation Commando, one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Korean War. During the conflict, 745 were killed and 2,832 were wounded.
Whitley was only a corporal when he was given the duties of a first sergeant, and he soon became the youngest master sergeant in the Far East.
Whitley thanked his family and the community for their support. He especially thanked Rockridge Junior High for holding the event.
Morris said it was an honor to get to know Whitley and to present him with his medal.
"One of the greatest pleasures that we can have as military members is to be able to serve our community and our nation," said Morris. "One of the ways we do that is by thanking the veterans who served before us."
During the event, Command Sgt. Maj. Myris Dixon, U.S. Army Garrison-Rock Island Arsenal, served as the keynote speaker. She talked about the history of Veterans Day and why honoring veterans makes America a great nation.
"Veterans have kept faith, they have kept us free, and they have enabled America to keep faith with the rest of the world," she said. "All Americans are charged with the responsibility to ensure [veterans'] service and sacrifices are not forgotten, but continuously echo in our respective communities across the nation and around the world."
Katy Hasson, principle, Rockridge Junior/Senior High School, said the Veterans Day event is significant for students, faculty and the community.
"We encourage all of the junior high students to invite family members, friends or neighbors who are veterans to come and be honored," she said.
Rockridge Junior High hosts a Veterans Day event every three years so students can be involved at least once during their junior high careers. The school serves students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
Hasson said the students and faculty plan for the event well in advance.
"Primarily the students put things together," she said, "They decorate the placements, they do the setup, they do a lot of the entertainment part of the program, and they make the special presentations to each of the veterans during the ceremony."
During the special presentations, each veteran's name was read. A student then handed the veteran a "Rockridge Rocket" challenge coin and a letter of appreciation.
The school district held several fundraisers to pay for the challenge coins and the food for a celebratory breakfast. On "hat day," students were permitted to ware hats indoors for a day if they donated a dollar. On "jeans day" faculty were allowed to wear jeans for a day for a $5 donation.
Morris said he thought the event was impressive.
"It was all very, very well done -- very professional," he said. "It really shows that this school and this community really supports its veterans."