There is no question in John Strain's mind that he was injured in combat.
Almost 45 years after he was hit in the leg and eye with shrapnel while fighting in Vietnam, the La Conner resident finally got the Purple Heart to prove it Friday, July 20, at the Bellingham Veteran Center.
"I knew I had the medal, but to get it from the Department of Veteran Affairs was another matter," Strain said. "It feels great to get. (To have it) physically in my possession, well, it's amazing."
Strain served as a specialist fourth class in the Army, patrolling roads and guarding convoys in the central highlands of Vietnam, when a rocket hit his mortar truck in March 1968. But with such heavy combat in the area, Strain received medical care and was sent back to his unit, never receiving his medal.
In 2001, Strain's longtime friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Eudon Rhymer got him connected with Jim Pace, senior veteran service officer at the Bellingham Veteran Center. Over the years, Pace helped increase Strain's disability benefits, and Pace and Rhymer did the research and got the documentation to get Strain his Purple Heart.
"Without them, none of this would be possible," Strain said. "I'm forever grateful. People like that are just angels."
Rhymer said the medal was "long overdue," and Pace described the work as a "labor of love."
"It's important to me to make sure those who served during Vietnam and other wars get the recognition they deserve," Pace said.
Strain's family looked on proudly as he was pinned with the medal Friday morning by Bill Bowen, president of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. Strain thanked Pace and Rhymer for their tireless work, and his wife, Carrole, for sticking by him. After the ceremony, she had trouble expressing just how much the medal meant to them.
"It's something he's had in the back of his mind for over 40 years," she said. "It's overwhelming. This is giving him peace of mind. A day didn't go by when he wasn't thinking of it, even if he didn't talk about it."
To find out more about the Bellingham Veteran Center, 3800 Byron Ave. No. 124, call 360-733-9226.
Reach ZOE FRALEY at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 756-2803.