As a 20-year-old in 1951, Warren Wilkins proudly wore Army green and served as a paratrooper during the Korean War.
On Sunday, six decades later, he received a long-awaited Bronze Star medal for his service.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) presented Wilkins, 86, with the medal, saying he was honored to help piece Wilkins’ record back together.
“It’s a long time overdue,” Zeldin said. “You should have received this in person several decades ago. You earned this well over 60 years ago.”
Though Wilkins served in the Army for three years, from 1951 to 1954, he was not recognized as a veteran for decades because his military records were destroyed in a fire at a government repository in 1973.
Upon receiving the medal, Wilkins, of Islip, said that it was his privilege to have served the country. The Bronze Star, awarded for heroic achievement in a combat zone, is the fifth military decoration bestowed on him, including a Purple Heart.
Though Wilkins has Parkinson’s disease and currently resides at a West Babylon nursing home, he still remembers his military service vividly. When he was just 19 years old, he enlisted after seeing a friend in his military outfit.
“That sharp uniform, those shiny boots . . . I signed right up,” Wilkins said. During his service, he completed 17 jumps, and recalled feeling like “a sack of potatoes” upon landing.
He joked with Zeldin, an Iraq War veteran who was also a paratrooper, that the parachutes are slightly better these days.
Wilkin’s reinstatement as a veteran is a four-year-long effort by his longtime friends Theresa and Jack Holt, a couple who live in Mount Sinai. Upon researching nursing homes, the Holts, who have known Wilkins for nearly 40 years, were told Wilkins was not eligible for admission to the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stonybrook.
Theresa contacted the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, site of the 1973 fire that destroyed Wilkins’ records. She also reached out to local officials, but her attempts went nowhere, she said.
“We were constantly being turned down; it was a big circle,” she said. Then, she contacted Zeldin’s office for assistance and after more than a year of searching, Wilkins’ military records were verified.
The certification of military service entitles Wilkins to his “justly earned” military benefits, Zeldin said, and puts an end to what Zeldin called an “outrageous” error.
At the end of Sunday’s ceremony, Wilkins took a bite from a patriotic red, white, and blue cake and said he got “chills down his spine” upon receiving his Bronze Star.
“It’s never too late,” he said.