George Stavropoulos doesn’t like to be called a war hero, but even if you set aside the four Purple Heart medals he was awarded, there’s still his Silver Star — the third-highest military combat decoration, which is awarded for gallantry in action.
The Vietnam veteran and Britton Falls resident was one of 50 veterans nationwide — one from each state — chosen for a Purple Heart Patriot Project event in September. The group traveled to New York for four days that included visits to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Washington’s Headquarters, the Statue of Liberty and the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor — a museum dedicated to service members who have been wounded or killed in action.
Stavropoulos said the program opens nominations each year around Christmastime, and he was nominated for the honor by his granddaughter.
“They get several hundred, if not thousands, of nominations,” he said. “Because of the sheer numbers of living Purple Heart recipients, they decided that the way they would do it would be to pick one Purple Heart recipient from each state to represent the state.”
Stavropoulos said that when choosing who would represent Indiana, program officials likely considered his four Purple Hearts — more than any other veteran chosen for the event — along with his Silver Star, his work on the Fishers Armed Services Commission and his induction last year into the Indiana Military Veterans Hall of Fame.
Stavropoulos said when he and the other veterans arrived in New York City for the start of the Purple Heart Patriot Project week, it coincided with a General Assembly meeting at the United Nations.
“Every diplomat in the world was there, including (President Joe) Biden and (England’s) Prince William,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you — I’m a retired police officer — and in all the years I’ve been involved in law enforcement, I’ve never seen that many cops in one place in my life.”
Stavropoulos, 76, said the trip was filled with activities from start to finish and included veterans of different age groups.
“We had one living World War II Purple Heart recipient in our crowd, and he’s going to be 100 the day after Christmas,” he said. “Keeping up with him was a challenge for a lot of people. This guy could push his walker around like it was a car. He was sharp as a tack. He was involved in everything (and) he never slowed down. He was totally into everything that was going on. And it was great to watch him. It was absolutely fabulous to watch him.”
Stavropoulos said he’s not the kind of person to sit around and tell war stories, but it was interesting to hear what other veterans in the group had gone through, and to share his own experiences.
Purple Hearts are awarded to military personnel who are wounded or killed while serving. Stavropoulos said the first time he was wounded in Vietnam was less than 24 hours after he arrived.
Stavropoulos was a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman — a medic — serving with the U.S. Marine Corps infantry.
“I got to my unit the morning of April 24th (1967) and got wounded about four hours later,” he said. “So, that was my introduction to that country. And I felt if I had to do 13 months, and this is how it started — what the hell is the rest of it going to be like?”
He said he refused a Purple Heart for that incident, because he didn’t want his mother to know he’d been wounded already.
A few weeks later, on May 14, Stavropoulos was wounded again and spent a few days in the hospital before heading back to his unit. And then on July 2, 1967, he was wounded three times — shrapnel from a hand grenade and two gunshot wounds. He said his commanding officers ordered him out of the field, and he spent 11 months recovering in the hospital. He said corpsmen had a high casualty rate and were regularly replaced.
Stavropoulos enlisted at age 18 and said he volunteered numerous times to be deployed to Vietnam before he was sent at age 20. Military service was always his plan, he said, and it is somewhat of a family tradition. His parents both served and were married outside the Palace of Versailles in France after the end of World War II. He had uncles who served in World War II and Korea, he said. Two brothers enlisted, his son was in the U.S. Air Force, and he has grandchildren in the military as well.
He said it’s been gratifying in recent years for Vietnam veterans like himself to receive positive recognition for their service.
‘I’ve had a lot of nice things happen in the last few years and I’m grateful,” he said. “I never went looking for that stuff but it’s nice that it happened without a great deal of prompting by veterans.”
Stavropoulos said his time in Vietnam left a lasting impression.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think at some point about Vietnam,” he said. “I don’t remember a great deal of names of the people that I served with because we were such an active unit. We had casualties all the time. Replacements were coming in and some of them were replaced before I even knew who they were. I don’t remember too many names of the people I served with, but I still see every face of every Marine I took care of — especially the ones I lost.”
Stavropoulos said his military service is the proudest thing he’s ever done, and when his time comes, he will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Purple Heart history
One of the stops George Stavropoulos and the other veterans made during the Purple Heart Patriot Project trip was the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor.
According to the museum’s website, the award that’s now known as the Purple Heart traces its origins to the American Revolution.
“The Continental Congress had forbidden General George Washington from granting commissions and promotions in rank to recognize merit,” the website states. “Yet Washington wanted to honor merit, particularly among the enlisted soldiers. On August 7, 1782, his general orders established the Badge of Military Merit.”
The Purple Heart was revived many years later, in 1932.
“By order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution, is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements,” then-Secretary of War Douglas MacArthur wrote in General Order No. 3.
According to the website, criteria for receiving the Purple Heart have changed over the years.
“Currently, the Purple Heart, per regulation, is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after April 5, 1917, has been wounded, killed, or has died after being wounded by enemy action,” the website states.
For more, visit thepurpleheart.com.