World War II Vet Wants One Thing Before He Dies: The Purple Heart He Earned In 1944

US Army

MANCHESTER -- It didn't take long for the U.S. Army to get Francis Byrne into combat.

A day after he turned 18 in 1943, he got his draft notice. Within a year, he splashed into the waters off Omaha Beach on D-Day, his first combat deployment.

The Army has taken a lot longer -- seven decades and counting -- to award Byrne the Purple Heart he said he deserves. His painful reminder of the war: he carries around shrapnel from a German landmine in his leg.

Now at 94, doctors have diagnosed Byrne with kidney and bladder cancer and given him about four months, his family said.

He spends most days in his apartment on Front Street, beside a window that looks out onto Front Street and its continual flow of traffic.

Before he dies, he said, he would like a Purple Heart, the combat decoration the military awards to personnel injured at the hands of the enemy.

"I think I deserve it. When you get wounded, you're supposed to get a Purple Heart. It means a lot," he said during a recent interview.

But his quest has become an absurd comedy of battlefield chaos, Pentagon indifference and bureaucratic stagnation. Even high-ranking officials -- for example New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen -- haven't been able to get very far.

Shaheen spokesman Ryan Nickel called the situation frustrating.

"Over the years, three different New Hampshire U.S. Senators have petitioned the U.S. Army to grant Mr. Byrne the Purple Heart. Currently, Senator Shaheen's office is working closely with the Army to try to expedite that consideration due to Mr. Byrne's poor health," Nickel wrote in an email.

Byrne was assigned to an anti-aircraft battalion and his primary duty was as a cook, according to a report by the Department of Veteran Affairs.

He was in the fifth wave to hit the beach at Omaha, he said. A display case on his wall includes medals for D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Combat Service, Army Good Conduct, World War II Victory and the French Croix de Guerre.

In the middle is an empty spot where he hopes to hang a Purple Heart.

Byrne said he was injured in the fall of 1944 while approaching a cornfield in Belgium. A fellow soldier stepped on a landmine, and the force of the blast sent Byrne to the ground.

Byrne said he told a medic to work on the soldier who triggered the mine. Byrne limped for the rest of the day, and first looked at his leg that night. His lieutenant promised to fill out paperwork, but he was killed the following day.

The pain went away after a couple of hours. There was a war to win (he ended up working on blowing up enemy bridges and building Allied ones, he said). And Byrne kept on moving.

He was discharged in 1945 and worked for years as a construction supervisor in Massachusetts. He retired and moved to New Hampshire.

In 2000, he started complaining about pain in his legs, according to his disability determination by the Department of Veteran Affairs.

According to the report, a VA physician attributed the pain to nerve damage. Byrne told the doctor of the shrapnel wound to his shin, but there was no scarring, no evidence of an entrance wound, and hair growth was normal.

In 2006, an X-ray detected a 6 millimeter metallic object in his ankle; over the years, where it had slowly migrated over the years, the doctor wrote.

"All doubt has been resolved in favor of the veteran. Service connection (disability) for residuals of shrapnel wound, left leg has been established as directly related to military service," the VA review officer wrote in 2007.

Byrne compared the pain to a constant toothache.

The review meant that one federal agency -- the VA -- is paying benefits based, in part, on a battlefield injury that another federal agency -- the Department of Defense -- hasn't acknowledged.

Byrne has amassed letters from politicians and Pentagon officials about his efforts for the Purple Heart. The most recent is Shaheen's office and dated in early September. But he's also got one from her predecessor, Sen. John E. Sununu, dated in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records wrote Byrne in early September 2017 saying it had received his application.

"Due to the high volume of applications received and the complexity of many cases, it is currently taking 12 months or longer before you may receive a decision on your application," the letter reads.

On Tuesday, the New Hampshire Union Leader emailed several questions to the Army about the process and the delays. On Thursday, a spokesman said the Army would not likely have comment in time for this article.

Nickel, Shaheen's spokesman, said Shaheen "is committed to exhausting every possible option to secure approval of Mr. Byrne's application."

Recently, Military and Veteran Services at EasterSeals New Hampshire started to assist Byrne.

Care Coordinator Leslie Mendenhall said the 1973 fire of the National Archives National Personnel Records Center is the stumbling block to past efforts. The fire destroyed millions of military personnel files.

"It sounds like when they realized his records were burned in the fire, they stopped working on it," Mendenhall said. She dismissed the notion that the Army just believe Byrne.

"The military will never do that," she said.

And so he waits.

Byrne is a favorite among his fellow residents at Sundance Village, an apartment complex where he has lived for 16 years.

This summer, he helped build trellises on the community garden, and he grows tomatoes and annuals in the raised beds.

But ever since the cancer diagnosis, he has slowed down, said Madeleine Doyon, the daughter of Byrne's girlfriend, Rita Morrissette.

He'll get a letter saying that no decision has been made, and he just wants to give up. In fact, friends say his quest for the Purple Heart is keeping him alive.

"All he wants is the darn Purple Heart," Doyon said. "It's been a real heartbreak for him because he deserves it."


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