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The Purple Heart: One Veteran’s Long Journey

A man in uniform hands a senior Veteran a red coin

Veteran John Reist wears his new Purple Heart Medal for the first time as Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) Veterans Services Director Gene Wikle presents him with a commemorative coin to mark the occasion.

by Hans Petersen, VA Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2014

Today, August 7, is the anniversary of the creation of the Purple Heart.

Thousands of brave Veterans have received the award. John Reist, who was wounded three times in Vietnam, received his well-deserved and long overdue recognition this year. This is his story.

The Purple Heart was originally known as the Badge of Military Merit and was created by George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, on August 7, 1782.

Reist earned a Purple Heart and several other military medals for his service in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. John never received these awards due to a rough transition into civilian life after being honorably discharged from service.

Just months after turning 18, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was deployed to Da Nang, Vietnam. On this deployment, John’s regiment stormed a hill under enemy fire and he was shot in the arm. John spent four months in rehabilitation therapy and went home to his family on leave. He married, but just before his daughter was born, he was redeployed.

John was injured again after pulling three wounded men out of the line of fire. This time, John was shot in the leg and fell down the hill on which the battle was fought. John suffered head trauma, shrapnel in his back and a wounded leg.

After recovering, John was sent back into battle. This time he was shot in the hip and after his recovery, was honorably discharged and returned home to his family.

The Badge of Military Merit was only awarded to three Revolutionary War soldiers. Although never abolished, the award of the badge was not proposed again officially until after World War I.

John Reist had many issues readjusting to civilian life. He had regular flashbacks, was anxious and felt lost. He ended up divorcing his wife. One night John’s car was run off the road by another vehicle. His car hit a telephone pole, injuring him and one of the passengers and killing two others. John fell into a deep depression and his flashbacks of Vietnam returned, now more frequent and intense.

For several years, John slept under overpasses and searched for food in dumpsters. Throughout his time on the streets, John was physically attacked three times and had all of his belongings stolen.

After one attack, he was brought to the Carl T. Hayden Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona, with broken ribs. After his release, the hospital brought him to Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS) where he was provided a bed at the shelter, access to continued medical care for his injury and a case manager specifically trained to address the needs of homeless Veterans.

A man in uniform and a senior Veteran smile at the camera

On December 3, 1942 President Franklin D. Roosevelt extended the use of the Purple Heart to all services. The Purple Heart is the oldest military award that is still given to members of the U.S. military.

John and his case manager developed an individualized plan that provided him a stable transition into housing and independence. In addition to housing, John’s case manager helped him to secure the post-service benefits he earned during his many sacrifices serving our country and connected him with VA mental health services.

Today, John lives in an independent living facility and is grateful for his stability and happy to have a new view on life.

In May, in front of an intimate gathering of supporters, CASS’ Director of Veteran Services, Gene Wikle, and Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor had the honor of presenting John with his Purple Heart and other recognitions. Presenting John with the award was a humbling experience for VA and CASS staff that was touched by his perseverance to move his life forward.

Read more about the Purple Heart