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Vietnam veteran receives Purple Heart 42 years later

October 12, 2012

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Ferndale resident and former U.S. Army Spc. Tom Ducharme, right, who received a Purple Heart 42 years after being wounded in Vietnam, shakes hands with military veteran Frank Flores, of Warren, Oct. 5.

It took more than four decades, but Tom Ducharme finally got the recognition he deserves.

The 62-year-old Ferndale resident and Vietnam War veteran was severely wounded on the battlefield 42 years ago, but he never received a Purple Heart for the injuries he sustained fighting for his country. That all changed with a long-overdue ceremony held at the Ferndale Elks Lodge No. 1588 Oct. 5.

A crowd of over 100 people — Ducharme’s family and friends, military personnel and city officials — gathered in front of the lodge to pay tribute to Ducharme, a former specialist in the U.S. Army. After an opening song by bagpipers from the Metro Detroit Police and Fire Pipes and Drums, and a flag raising service from the Ferndale Police Honor Guard, Ron Gilmour, founder of the Elks’ ongoing Hangin’ with the Heroes series, addressed the crowd.

“We started Hangin’ with the Heroes in 2009 as a way to gather together as one community to honor all those who put their lives on the line for our country,” he said. “Today we get to honor a true American hero.”

Ducharme was deployed to Vietnam Dec. 16, 1969. Less than seven months later, on July 10, 1970, he was severely wounded in action after being struck by a mortar explosion. The blast blew off part of his right hand, including his index finger, damaged his left lung and disfigured the left side of his face. He returned home in August and was honorably retired from the Army May 27, 1971, but he was later forced to undergo about 60 reconstructive surgeries to correct his injuries.

Still, Ducharme never received a Purple Heart for these sacrifices. The award was originally created by George Washington in 1782 to recognize an American soldier’s achievement or courage on the battlefield. Today, a Purple Heart is issued to all service men and women who have been wounded or killed in action since April 5, 1917.

At the Oct. 5 ceremony, Ducharme officially joined that group. U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, who serves as chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, did the honors of pinning the Purple Heart onto Ducharme’s suit coat.

“This award is a little late, but that’s fairly typical for a lot of our veterans,” Levin told the audience. “It’s important to recognize the valor of these men and women, but it’s even more important for the kids who are here today to see the sacrifices that were made for them to live in a free country.”

Levin also pointed out that like many Vietnam veterans, Ducharme was not welcomed home or treated with proper respect after coming back from the war.

“These men and women,” he said, “were put through tremendous pain when they returned home from Vietnam and were not treated as the heroes that they should have been. Never, ever again will the United States fail to support those who serve this country. This is a man who went to war for us, and thank God for his service.”

City Councilman Mike Lennon said that he has known Ducharme for decades but was not aware of his acts of bravery until recently.

“Tom, I’m very proud to know you, proud that you’re from Ferndale and proud of your dedicated service,” he told his friend. “You are very well deserving of this honor.”

John Kissick, who grew up in Ferndale and served in Vietnam with Ducharme, was also in attendance. “It’s great that this is finally happening,” he said. “I’m really happy for Tommy. This has been a long time coming.”

Ducharme was beaming as he greeted a long line of well-wishers, who showered him with kind words of thanks and congratulations. He stood proudly with his wife, Jeanmarie, and their two sons, 9-year-old Matthew and 7-year-old Jack.

When asked why it has taken so long for him to receive his Purple Heart, Ducharme’s explanation was a simple one. “I think it was a glitch with the paperwork,” he said, “and I just never really pursued it on my own. I never sought it out, but then my boys started asking about it, and I figured that maybe it was time that I did.”

And how did it feel to finally receive the award, especially coming from a U.S. senator, as part of a formal military ceremony, in front of a huge crowd of his loved ones?

“I was pretty overwhelmed by it all,” Ducharme said. “I thought that maybe a handful of family and friends would be here, but I never expected anything like this. The main thing is that I wanted to have something to leave behind for my sons, and now I do.”

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