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A heartfelt tribute to their sacrifice

Wounded veterans are honored during an event marking the 225th anniversary of the Purple Heart medal.

August 05, 2007|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta pushed aside his dark sunglasses and dabbed his eyes with a blue cloth as he listened Saturday to one speaker after another hail the sacrifices made and terrible prices paid by his fellow servicemen and women.

But the 30-year Army veteran from Santa Fe Springs wasn't crying because he was overcome with emotion. His left eye leaks tears continuously now, one of the lesser complications of an Iraqi mortar strike that robbed him of his sight.

Acosta, 50, was one of dozens of wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan who received a hero's tribute Saturday during a ceremony to honor the 225th anniversary of the creation of the Purple Heart Award.

"You went into combat and were wounded. God love you. We admire you. We are grateful to you," former Gov. Pete Wilson said during ceremonies at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley. "We need to learn from and salute your courage.... We need to express our gratitude for what you have done."

Saturday's reception, organized by Yellow Ribbon America -- a grass-roots military support group -- paid tribute to all recipients of the Purple Heart, given to those wounded in combat.

The medal itself dates back almost to the founding of the United States; it was created as the Badge of Military Merit by Gen. George Washington in 1782. It fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War before being brought back and formally renamed in 1932.

On Saturday, veterans of America's wars gathered to honor more recent recipients, including Acosta and Army Staff Sgt. Jarod Behee.

Acosta was hit by shrapnel from a mortar shell during a morning three-mile run at his Baghdad base in January 2006. He lost both his eyes, his top teeth and his senses of smell and taste.

Behee, 28, now has a vivid pink scar creasing his shaved head -- the remnants of sniper's bullet that almost killed him in Iraq in 2005. His family celebrates every May 5, the day he was wounded, as "Alive Day."

Surgeons rebuilt Behee's skull using acrylic plates, and he defied the doctors' predictions by learning how to walk and talk again. Still, the brain damage he suffered comes through in his speech, and his right eye doesn't work properly. He's talked about getting plastic surgery to mask the effects of the nerve damage around his eye.

"But he wants to keep his scars," said Jarod's mother, Sandy Behee. "He says he earned them."

Asked about keeping the scars, Jarod Behee smiles impishly: "They're cool! Chicks dig scars."

Before a lunch of hot dogs and ice cream, a succession of speakers paid tribute to the sacrifices made by all military personnel.

"For everything we are and everything we have, we need to look to these men and women who are willing to stand up and do what others are not willing to do," said retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Chris Martin, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2002 and now works for the Long Beach Police Department.

Several speakers referred to the Vietnam War, when returning service members were at times treated with scorn. Now, with the American public seemingly souring on another war, the speakers warned against making the same mistake.

"We must always honor those who answered their country's call," said former Gov. Gray Davis, who served in Vietnam as an Army officer. "As Americans, we must never again blame the warrior for the mistakes of war makers in Washington."

Those sentiments bore special meaning for the many Vietnam veterans in attendance, even those who weren't wounded.

Thurman Collins of Mission Hills remembers being shocked by his treatment upon his return from a tour of duty with the Air Force.

"We were called baby killers. We were spit upon. I was ashamed to wear my uniform," said Collins, 63. "We separate the politicians from the soldiers now.... To see a ceremony like this -- it's very moving."

The day's events even included an unlikely bit of levity.

During Wilson's speech, swirling winds caused an American flag to almost fall on him.

The career politician and Marine veteran didn't miss a beat: "I've been accused of wrapping myself in the flag before, but this is the first time it ever came after me."

ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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