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Vietnam War veteran from Queens receives Purple Heart nearly 5 decades later

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) hands the Purple Heart

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) hands the Purple Heart medallion to Gunter Harter, of Bellerose, during a brief ceremony at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5253 in Albertson on Friday, July 31, 2015. Credit: Barry Sloan

Because war is chaotic, and battlefield paperwork is sometimes left undone, Gunter Harter was sent home from the Vietnam War 47 years ago without the Purple Heart medal he had coming to him.

But that oversight was rectified Friday, when Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) handed the heart-shaped medallion to Harter, of Bellerose, Queens, at a brief ceremony at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Albertson.

"I wasn't upset, I was just glad to be alive," Harter, 73, said of his having been passed over for the medal these many years. "But it's good to be recognized."

Some 354,000 Purple Heart citations -- which are granted to U.S. troops injured in combat -- were issued during the Vietnam War, according to a 2009 estimate by National Geographic magazine. Purple Heart recipients receive several benefits, including federal Veterans Affairs medical care priority and government job preferences.

Harter, an Army sergeant, became eligible for the medal while on a patrol in Vietnam in December 1968, just two weeks before his scheduled discharge. He was close by when an explosive trap detonated, killing his point man and destroying Harter's eardrums.

Evacuated from Vietnam immediately, he battled infections before receiving artificial eardrums during a medical procedure two months later.

He came home, went to work as a machinist for a Long Island City Pepsi plant, raised two sons with his wife, Helga, and forgot about the medal.

Harter learned of his eligibility for the award this year when he sought help from the congressman's staff in boosting his disability rating for afflictions related to his Vietnam War exposure to Agent Orange.

Israel said his staff came across evidence of Harter's injury while reviewing his military records.

"This is the first time I can remember awarding a Purple Heart that wasn't granted because of a bureaucratic error," Israel said after presenting Harter with the medal. "The Army never submitted his paperwork 47 years ago."


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