A Purple Heart medal thought lost for decades is now in the hands of the family of a Vietnam War veteran from Riverhead who died last year at age 71.
The medal awarded to Army Spc. Willie Riley, a gunner who was badly injured when the tank he was riding in hit a land mine in Vietnam in 1968, was presented Saturday to his widow and children in a Veteran’s Day ceremony at his gravesite at Calverton National Cemetery in Wading River — some 49 years after he received it.
“It was awesome to finally just get to hold it . . . He would be ecstatic,” said one of Riley’s four children, Heather Jackson, 27, a senior airman in the Air National Guard based in Schenectady.
Riley, who suffered broken ribs and lacerations in the attack, told his family he remembered an Army official pinning the Purple Heart — awarded to all service members killed or injured during military action — to his chest after undergoing surgery.
The East St. Louis, Illinois, native served in the Army from 1967 to 1969. He later moved to New York and lived in Belmont Park, where he worked as an exercise rider.
Lori Riley, whom he married in 1987, said her husband told her he gave the medal to his sister in Illinois for safekeeping when he moved to Long Island in the early ’70s.
Years later, while living in Riverhead and working as a horse trainer, he asked for the Purple Heart and his sister told him she thought it was stolen from her home.
“He was devastated, devastated,” said Lori Riley, 55, of Riverhead. “He was just really upset . . . He wanted his kids to see it.”
Shortly before he died in December 2016 of lung cancer, Willie Riley and other family members reached out to the office of Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) for help to find the medal, but it was not located.
Then last Sunday night Karen Heppner from the McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home, which had handled Riley’s services and got a call from a reporter in Illinois, knocked on Lori Riley’s door to give her the news the family had longed for.
The Illinois state treasurer’s office had the medal in its unclaimed property, apparently forgotten by Riley’s since-passed sister in a safe-deposit box in Springfield.
“It’s fantastic. It looks perfect,” said Lori Riley, who saw it for the first time Saturday.
And she is going to make sure the Purple Heart doesn’t get misplaced again, she said.
“It’s going to be right on the wall in my home,” she said.