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Vietnam veteran surprised by Purple Heart

-  Boring resident receives second highest military honor 47 years later


by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Wayne Swanson was awarded a Purple Heart for military merit after a combat injury on Sept. 16, 1966. The Purple Heart is the second highest meritorious award presented to members of the armed forces.

It’s been said that good news travels fast.

But 47 years doesn’t seem very quick.

“It’s an honor I never thought I would see,” said Wayne Swanson, referring to the Purple Heart he recently received for military merit in Vietnam. “It’s quite an honor to be recognized this way.”

Swanson, 69, was wounded by shrapnel on Sept. 16, 1966, suffering an injury he declines to discuss but one he says continues to impact his life. He served as a helicopter gunner from March 1966 to April 1967 and was discharged without any knowledge he had been awarded the second highest honor presented to a member of the armed forces.

So what took so long?

Swanson grew up in East County. After graduating from Gresham High School in 1962, he found himself in the Army under the employ of Uncle Sam. It was during one of his 40 combat missions where he caught the shrapnel that earned him the meritorious award.

“It happened late in the afternoon,” he said. “There was a medic who taped me up, but when we got back, I went to the infirmary and they treated me. I was back flying the next day.”

Swanson was honorably discharge in 1971. He returned home and became a firefighter in Portland. But adjusting to civilian life wasn’t easy, he said, given the climate of public sentiment toward Vietnam veterans at the time.

“There was a girl I had been dating and on our third date, she asked if I’d been in Vietnam,” Swanson recalled. “When I told her ‘yes,’ she told me to take her home. After that, she didn’t return my calls. A lot of us just didn’t tell people we were over there.”

Swanson retired from Portland Fire in 2001 after 28 years with the department. Unable to afford the self-pay health insurance option for retirees, he found himself without medical benefits until he became eligible for Medicare nearly five years ago.

“I was fortunate to not have any big problems,” Swanson said. “My health insurance was ‘don’t get sick.’”

In October 2010, to cope with what he concluded was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Swanson began restoring antique hot rods in the shop behind his home in Boring. Last year, he and his friend Dana Price, an Iraq war veteran, rebuilt a 1924 Studebaker roadster with the intention of creating a tribute car for veterans. The pair have traveled to numerous car shows, offering veterans a Sharpie and space on the car’s body for their signature. by: OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO - To cope with his post-traumatic stress disorder, Swanson began restoring hot rods in 2010. Last year, he and an Iraq war veteran rolled out their restored roadster, which they take to car shows for other veterans to sign. Swanson estimates there are more than 500 signatures on the body and soft-top of the car.

“There’s probably 500 or more names on that car,” Swanson said.

In early 2013, after the prompting of several friends, Swanson decided to sign up for VA benefits and embarked on the tedious process of evaluations to determine his eligibility.

“I went to a psychiatrist in May to see if I had PTSD, and the doctor said, ‘Oh, you have a Purple Heart,’” Swanson said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t,’ and he said, ‘Yes you do. It’s here in your records.’ I told him, ‘I don’t have my records. Let me see that.’”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Swanson was a firefighter with Portland for 28 years before retiring in 2001. He had no medical benefits for nearly 10 years, saying his health insurance was 'don't get sick.' Swanson laughs recalling the irony of being told by the VA that he needed to send a written request, requesting an official VA request form for his service records. He also was told it could take nearly a year before his records would be sent. Eventually, he cut to the chase and ended up at the VA office in downtown Portland. Two hours later, he emerged with a copy of his records and sure enough, documentation of his Purple Heart. He promptly applied to have the medal sent to him.

Swanson received his Purple Heart via the mail in February. He had the option to travel to Washington, D.C., for a formal presentation, but declined.

Turns out, Swanson’s experience with an unknown meritorious service award is not unique. More and more veterans are learning that they have medals coming to them that weren’t documented on their discharge papers (a DD-214).

“You hear about it all the time,” said Val Shaull, past commander for the Gresham United VFW Post No. 180 and a Vietnam veteran himself. “It’s in the paper every day — somebody gets a Silver Star or Purple Heart decades after their discharge. For a lot of us, when we got out, it was ‘Bye!’ It’s probably because the paperwork just wasn’t filed by the time they got out.”

According to Shaull, a veteran’s DD-214 is the most valuable document he or she possesses. The form is not only proof of military service, but also the basis for what level of benefits a veteran is entitled to through the VA.

The information on a DD-214, and its accuracy, is the key to veterans benefits, Shaull said, which range from health care and medications to life insurance and educational reimbursement. But acquiring them is not automatic.

“You’ve got to get your name in the system,” Swanson said. “Every county has a veterans advocate — start with them. There are lots of benefits out there for veterans, but you’ve got to get in the system. All it takes is one phone call.”



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