Forty-five years after Lance Cpl. Richard Kaler, of Patchogue, was killed in the Vietnam War, the younger generations of his family Friday got to hold and admire for the first time the Navy Cross that the Marine gunner had earned.

Nephew Robert Kaler, of Bayport, and other relatives accepted the Navy Cross -- the highest decoration given by the Navy -- the Purple Heart and other medals and citations on Richard Kaler's behalf at a Veterans Day ceremony at the North Shore-LIJ Rosen Family Wellness Center in Manhasset.

"It's a little surreal," said Robert Kaler, who said he had learned more about his uncle's acts of bravery in recent weeks after a Vietnam-era Army veteran noticed that Kaler's heroism was not fully reflected on his headstone in Patchogue's Cedar Grove Cemetery.

That veteran, Tony Schiozzi, of Patchogue, who was researching awards given to local veterans, began a campaign to ensure Kaler's valor was honored.

As a result, the Veterans Affairs Department provided a new headstone that notes the Navy Cross honor.

Also, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) worked with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who secured the awards through the veterans department.

Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, presented Kaler's family with the medals as well as a U.S. flag that had been flown at the Capitol in his honor. The ceremony was held at a center that provides behavioral health treatment for law enforcement and military personnel.

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Kaler was fighting in Operation Hastings near the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone in 1966, according to his Navy Cross citation. He charged the enemy and kept fighting after he was shot in the thigh, the citation states.

He "subjected himself to intense fire" when he was killed, Gillibrand said. "He gave his life fighting to protect our freedom."

Kaler died at age 22, four years after graduating from Patchogue High School. His Newsday obituary states he had just told his family he had only 41 days of duty left in Vietnam.

Robert Kaler said that while his family might have received some of the medals previously, they had gotten misplaced as the older generations relocated or died. After Schiozzi brought to their attention the problem with Kaler's headstone, which did note the Purple Heart but not the Navy Cross, the family realized it did not have the medals.

Elva English, of Pinnacle, N.C., the widow of Richard Kaler's brother, said she wished her deceased husband were alive to see the medals awarded.

"It's sad that it's 45 years too late," she said.

English said she did find a yellowed, undated newspaper clipping that showed a photo of Kaler's mother accepting the Navy Cross posthumously. The caption reads that he was killed "while charging an enemy machine gun nest. He had been in Vietnam about 11 months."

"It was recognition that was long overdue," Schiozzi said Friday.