40 years later, Syracuse man gets purple heart

Sep 30, 2011

Leonard Bernard was a platoon leader with the First Cavalry Division and saw plenty of action. 

"I saw a lot of combat," said Bernard. "We had 96 guys in my company and in 6 months 48 were killed."

It was June 20, 1967 when he suffered massive head and chest injuries while fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. He spent the next year in hospitals and was finally able to come home. At that time, the anti-war movement was escalating with everyone from college students to celebrities criticizing the government for a war that seemed unwinnable. 

Looking back, Bernard says the hardest part of his recovery wasn't the hospitals. 

"I came home with 5 tubes inside me and someone spit on me and called me a 'fascist pig'", said Bernard.

Bernard says it was an attitude that blamed soldiers for an unpopular war that has haunted Vietnam vets ever since.

"Vietnam vets are off the chart," said Bernard. "You can't find them. You don't know where they are, drugs, alcohol. Not because of what Vietnam did to them, but what the public did to them for 20 years. They beat them down like tent pegs."

And he says one of the things Vietnam vets are most proud of today? Not the memories of battle, but how veterans of present day wars don't get the same treatment vets did 40 years ago.

"The legacy is, and a lot of Vietnam vets will tell you, we take a lot of pride in the fact that regardless of your political ideology, these people coming home today are being treated with respect and dignity," said Bernard.

Bernard hasn't lived his life waiting for these medals, including a purple heart, given to soldiers wounded in combat. But the 65 year old who lives in Syracuse and is a retired city firefighter is happy to finally get them.

"I wants what's due to me under the law based on the evidence and those are what I've earned," said Bernard. "I wanted them primarily for my family as a legacy of my accomplishments in Vietnam."

Bernard says in the end, no one can understand the battle experience of anyone in any war.

"All you can do is respect those that do. and respect them," said Bernard.