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54 Years Late, 2 Quiet Vets Can Boast a Chest Full of Medals

Military: Both were part of the Normandy invasion. A friend's yearlong effort led to their recognition.

July 09, 1999|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The wartime experiences of Salvatore Sortino and Daniel Barmish seemed right out of the D-Day film "Saving Pvt. Ryan." In fact, they were there on June 6, 1944.

Sortino operated a Navy landing craft, depositing Allied troops into the murderous enemy fire at Omaha Beach. Barmish parachuted behind enemy lines with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division before the troops went ashore at Normandy.

But the two Southern California men received no medals for their military service, not even the Purple Heart that Barmish earned when he was wounded during Operation Market Basket in the Netherlands.

"I never thought about it," Barmish, 75, of Los Angeles, said. Added Sortino, 83, of Yucca Valley, "It never came up."

So on Thursday, 54 years after World War II ended, the unassuming men each received a chest full of medals and campaign ribbons from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at a ceremony in West Los Angeles.

The event capped a yearlong effort initiated by Sherman Oaks producer and writer Rich Kilbane, 42, who is a friend of the two veterans.

"At a party, I asked Dan if he had been in the war," Kilbane recalled after Thursday's ceremony. "He said yes and then I asked, 'Do you have any medals?' "

"I don't know," Barmish replied.

Kilbane and his wife, Cynthia, decided to look into the matter. Kilbane intensified his efforts after "Saving Pvt. Ryan," Steven Spielberg's film about D-Day, was released.

The medal ceremony "couldn't have happened without Rich," said Barmish, a former Army private. Sortino, who had been a Navy boatswain and did not know Barmish during the war, agreed.

Representatives of veterans organizations said it is not uncommon for military personnel never to receive their medals and ribbons after leaving active duty. Records get lost, they said. And a 1973 fire in St. Louis destroyed many military records, complicating efforts to properly honor some veterans.

Tomas Alvarado, the new secretary of the California Department of Military Affairs, said veterans who find themselves in a situation like that of Sortino and Barmish should call local veterans groups or his office for assistance.

A Feinstein aide, Mat Kostrinsky, said a yearlong search was undertaken to confirm Sortino's and Barmish's service records and eligibility for medals.

Sortino received six medals, including a Naval Meritorious Service Medal, a Naval Reserve Medal, a World War II Victory Medal and an American Campaign Medal.

Barmish also received six medals, including a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, a Combat Infantryman Badge and a Presidential Unit Citation.

With friends and relatives surrounding them, the two vets said little about their military service.

"I'm happy to be standing upright today," Sortino said with a laugh.

The former Navy man did get a little flustered during the ceremony at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Hospital, referring to the senator as "governor."

Feinstein, who unsuccessfully sought the governorship before becoming a U.S. senator in 1992, quipped: "I decided not to do that."

Barmish's granddaughter Danielle watched quietly as her grandfather posed for pictures and chatted with Sortino after the ceremony.

"He was there," an observer whispered to her, "right there in all the action.

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