On Monday, 57 years after he was wounded by shrapnel in...

On Monday, 57 years after he was wounded by shrapnel in Vietnam, Army veteran Robert Terrell, 77, of Selden, received a Purple Heart. Credit: John Roca

In 1967, Robert Terrell, then a U.S. Army specialist in Vietnam, took shrapnel to his shoulder and jaw when a grenade detonated while he and his platoon conducted a reconnaissance mission.

Terrell, 77, of Selden, said he was treated on the beach by medics because beds in the MASH unit were occupied by soldiers in worse shape, including members of his platoon. 

He returned to combat the same day, his injuries treated but the shrapnel still in his shoulder and jaw. It all happened so quickly, Terrell said, his injuries were never properly documented.

That changed Monday when Terrell finally received official confirmation of his nearly ultimate sacrifice: a Purple Heart. 

“I was trained to go to Vietnam and in recon, you're expendable and the mission comes first,” Terrell said Monday. “If someone gets wounded, the medevac can't come in because the mission is over and they told me carry on. That still haunts me. It's hard to get a Purple Heart because your mission is still going.”

Terrell’s search for his Purple Heart didn’t begin on his behalf. He said he had started looking to replace his father’s lost World War II medals. So he contacted Rep. Nick LaLota (R-Amityville) in February and his father’s medals were replaced in about a week.

Terrell contacted LaLota’s office again in December, this time asking for help getting his Purple Heart.

LaLota secured the medal six weeks later and presented it to Terrell on Monday during a ceremony in Hauppauge.

The congressman called Terrell “a true hero of the Vietnam War” and said he was presenting the Purple Heart “57 years overdue.”

“I believe that his story is one of courage, of valor, of perseverance, and his service reminds us all of the immense service and sacrifices so many who have worn the uniform give to us, and specifically to the Vietnam veterans,” LaLota said. “And while the nation got it wrong decades ago, we want to help try to get it right.”

Terrell said the trauma of combat and seeing fellow soldiers killed haunts him still. Getting a Purple Heart upon his return home was not his focus.

He said he got back to Long Island from Vietnam in 1968 and went to Farmingdale State College and Long Island University, but feared protests against service members soldiers and asked the schools not to note his military background. 

Terrell, haunted by the horrors of combat the Vietnam War, just looked to live a quiet life. He didn't focus on getting a Purple Heart.

“When I came home, I went into hiding and I wanted to go back to college, but I couldn't fight the protesters,” Terrell said. “I didn't think I would survive. I should have died when I was 19, so every day is a blessing.”

Terrell went on to work as a 30-year union electrical worker, got married, and had three children and eight grandchildren.

He said in 2002 he went to the Department of Veterans Affairs and was treated for what he called “survival syndrome,” and learned to cope with the guilt of making it home while other soldiers didn't.

Terrell said he wasn’t sure he would ever get a Purple Heart to adorn his uniform and join about 20 other medals.

“I didn’t believe it until it was pinned on my chest,” Terrell said. “It was a little nerve wracking and I feel at peace now and I finally got something.”

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