Phil Hooper, a World War II veteran who saw action on D-Day and in other landmark battles as part of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, received a replacement for his misplaced Purple Heart on Thursday in a surprise ceremony with the Crispy Warriors, an informal group of local veterans. Hooper got the Purple Heart as the result of work by a Niceville High School student involved in the Veterans Heritage Project, the program's Florida advocate, and the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
NICEVILLE — When Clara Beth LaFollette and Gretchen Erickson left Philip Hooper's home on that July day, they knew they had to do something.
Hooper, 95, is a World War II veteran who saw action in landmark struggles including D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Market Garden as part of the Army's 101st Airborne Division's 327th Glider Infantry Regiment. Then a staff sergeant, Hooper earned the Purple Heart after being wounded by German artillery fire on Jan. 16, 1945 in Bastogne, Belgium.
Sadly, though, in the intervening years he lost track of the Purple Heart and the other awards and decorations he'd earned during the war.
His loss came to light as LaFollette, a rising senior at Niceville High School, interviewed him for the Veterans Heritage Project, a nonprofit initiative to link young people with veterans to preserve their stories. LaFollette's interview with Hooper will become part of an upcoming volume of veteran's interviews produced by the Veterans Heritage Project.
When LaFollette asked during the interview to see Hooper's medals, Hooper had to say he no longer had them. Walking out of the American House senior living facility after the interview, LaFollette and Erickson, the Florida advocate for the Veterans Heritage Project, were moved to action. Erickson got in touch with Bill Patterson of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
"I didn't really know what would happen," LaFollette said.
But as things turned out, Patterson got the issue in front of the national headquarters of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and it took less than a month for the organization to get a temporary replacement medal for Hooper and to have his name inscribed on the Roll of Honor at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in upstate New York.
"Never in our wildest imagination did we think it would go so quickly," Erickson said.
The effort to get Hooper's Purple Heart was kept secret from him until Thursday's meeting of the Crispy Warriors, a group of local veterans who meet for breakfast each week at Crackings restaurant in Destin. (The group takes its name from the fact that all of its members like their bacon to be crispy.)
Erickson got Hooper to the meeting with a bit of subterfuge.
"I told Phil, 'There is this great group of guys you have to meet,' " she said Thursday.
And it wasn't until Patterson called Hooper to the front of the room and opened a box containing the medal that Hooper suspected anything.
"I want to thank everybody here," Hooper said in a quiet voice as Erickson and LaFollette stood nearby. "I had no idea coming here this morning that this was going to take place."
"It's truly emotional to see how much it means to him," LaFollette said after Hooper received the medal, calling the morning "a truly great experience."
Like most World War II veterans, Hooper downplays his role in that crucial conflict. He was slightly bemused when recalling a recent trip to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, where other patrons learned he was a veteran of the war.
"My arm was just about shaken off," he said with a bewildered smile. His perspective, Hooper said, is, "I was there, and so what?"
Hooper did, though, relate a brief story Thursday from his wartime experiences, recalling being caught in an open field with other soldiers as German artillery began raining down. Hooper hit the ground and pressed so tightly to it, he said, that "I pushed a foxhole in."
The Purple Heart presented to Hooper on Thursday was based on an unofficial review of his DD-214, a document issued when a military service member retires, separates or is discharged from the armed forces. Among other things, the DD-214 lists medals and other decorations presented to the service member.
The office of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz is conducting the official casework to get Hooper's Purple Heart replaced, along with the other medals and awards he's earned. When that work is done, a ceremony restoring the medals and awards to Hooper will be held at the Air Force Armament Museum, Patterson said.
In addition to the Purple Heart, Hooper earned the Bronze Star for meritorious service, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, Glider Infantryman's Badge, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and Distinguished Unit Citation.
“One of the greatest privileges I have serving in the Congress is interceding with the federal government on behalf of my constituents," Gaetz said in a statement. "Each week, my team and I work on resolving constituent issues that range from obtaining Social Security benefits to recovering medals for Northwest Florida’s freedom fighters."