Daughter honors dad on Veterans Day as Purple Heart returns

November 10, 2017 12:33 PM

GLENVILLE – The hat has faded, but a symbol of pride for Senior Airman Heather Jackson – her father’s Vietnam Veteran Purple Heart hat. It sits in her car as she reports to work at the Stratton Air National Guard Base.
However, up until this week, her father, Willie Riley, didn’t have the actual Purple Heart to show for it. Now, posthumously, he does.

"I'm ecstatic,” Jackson said. “It's emotional, super-emotional. It's been a long-time coming.

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"It's finally happening. It's kind of surreal. That's what I keep telling everybody, it's surreal. I'm happy but it's super surreal to me."

Her quest to get her father’s Purple Heart really escalated once she joined the service. She works in personnel and is also a Sexual Assault Victim Advocate at the ANG base. She reached out to all levels but nothing ever came of it.

Then, earlier this year, through a program with the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office that returns unclaimed military medals to owners or heirs, it was found. It was left in a safe deposit box and then turned over to the state a decade ago but no one knew. It was missing for more than 20 years. Last week, Riley’s brother-in-law Tommie Turner accepted the Purple Heart from Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs. Now it’s on its way to Riley's widow, Lori Riley, who lives on Long Island.
The Riley’s were married at the home of Willie's sister, Geraldine Turner, in East St. Louis, IL and the Purple Heart was given to Geraldine for safekeeping, according to a report in the Herald & Review newspaper in Decatur, IL. She died in 2015. The medal was still missing.

"It was a long-time coming and I do think that this is just the beginning for some people,” Jackson said of the IL program.
Willie Riley earned his Purple Heart in 1968. He was a gunner in a tank that hit a landmine.

"It was basically blown up and he was thrown out of it and eyes popped out of its socket, broken ribs, broken leg, broken everything,” Jackson described to NewsChannel13. “And the one thing I do remember him telling me was when he was laying in bed he remembers somebody coming to pin it on before he had to go to surgery. He hadn't seen it since then."
Since then, Riley wore the Purple Heart hat but even his discharge papers had an error and didn’t mention his Purple Heart. He died last December at the age of 70. Jackson hasn’t been home since, but she returns tomorrow, Veterans Day, to be with her mom and the rest of her family downstate.

"This is the first Veterans Day that my father, one that he's missing because it will be a year in December that we lost him,” Jackson said. “This is the first Veterans Day that we can say that we're going to celebrate it positively. Every other Veterans Day my dad is extremely humble, extremely quiet, he doesn't really say anything that he's in the service. My brother and I kind of pushed for it once we were in the service. We're like this is something to be proud of."
The family got the call this past Sunday that the medal was coming home.

"My mom actually went to go see him the same night that she found out, Sunday night, and she went to the cemetery and it's pitch black and she's like, ‘We have it, we have it,’” Jackson said.

On Saturday, Jackson earned her first Air Force Achievement Medal.

"He wasn't treated with the most respect when he came back from Vietnam so it's something that we just keep quiet. However, every Veterans Day I make sure we go and we see him and surprise him.

"When he came back from war he went to the VA, he didn't get the help he needed, he got spit on and so forth and ever since then he said I respect the country that I served, I am not going to celebrate this because I wasn't celebrated. Which makes sense. So we made sure that we did that no matter what because we believed him."

"I won't believe it until tomorrow when we drive down to Long Island and it's being handed to my mom and know that it all made sense and it all matters; 20 years and we'll finally see it, in real life."



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