WINDOW ROCK ‹ After being injured on Iwo Jima while transmitting secret code in the Navajo language, 83-year-old Corporal Teddy Draper Sr., full of smiles and good cheer, received the Purple Heart on May 29 that had eluded him for six decades.
Standing at attention, resplendent in the bright yellow shirt, turquoise neck clasp and red cap that has become the uniform of the Navajo Code Talkers, Draper at long last received the award reserved only for soldiers whose blood is shed at the hand of an enemy from Maj. General Gene Renzi, (Ret.), father of Arizona District 1 U.S. Congressman Rick Renzi.
Letters of congratulations and declarations of gratitude were read praising Draper's patriotism and service. They came from President George Bush, U.S. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and the Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General M.W. Hagee.
"All these presentations, how did I earn them?" Mr. Draper said humbly to a crowd of about 300 veterans, police officers, government officials, family and friends gathered under waving flags before the sacred Window Rock at the Navajo Veterans' Park.
Maj. General Renzi, a veteran of two tours in Vietnam and 33 years of military service, said he was deeply touched to be given the honor of awarding the Purple Heart to Draper. Photographers crowded around as he pinned it to the proud old warrior's chest.
"There have been a couple of thrills in my career," Gen. Renzi said. "This ranks as one of the great ones."
Gen. Renzi said it was appropriate that Draper received his Purple Heart now, even 60 years late, because it will remind Americans of the cost of victory on Iwo Jima and will keep the image of the famous flag-raising on Mount Surabachi alive in memory.
"We need reminders in your lifetime of what we fought for," he said.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., with First Lady Vikki Shirley beside him, thanked Gen. Renzi and Congressman Rick Renzi for traveling to Navajoland to bestow this long-forgotten honor on the elderly Code Talker.
"We appreciate Major General Gene Renzi for coming out to award the Purple Heart to our Code Talker and hero, Mr. Teddy Draper Sr.," the President said. "Using the mailman to award a Purple Heart shows a lack of respect for our Code Talkers, our heroes, our soldiers, our veterans and their families."
Mr. Draper told the crowd how he had applied for G.I. benefits and medical care through the Veterans Administration upon returning from World War II, only having to follow that with appeal after appeal, being denied for 58 years.
At long last, through the intervention of an attorney, George Parker, who happened to hear him give a presentation about being a Code Talker and volunteered to help him, did Draper finally receive the benefits and Purple Heart he had earned alongside other Marines.
"As a nation, we overlook our veterans," President Shirley said. "Native Americans have been helping to win wars for the United States even before they were citizens of the United States. Native Americans are very patriotic in protecting sacred lands, and the United States is sacred land.
"Many veterans on Navajoland and across the country want more than just a medal," he said. "They want what has been promised and which they are entitled to. They want a house. They want a hospital here on Navajoland. They want scholarships for their children. They want better medical benefits."
Congressman Renzi said he had asked President Shirley what he could do or give to show the Navajo people the appreciation he felt toward them and their Nation. The answer was to bring his father out for this special honor of presenting Draper with his Purple Heart.
"This is how we can show the great respect that our family has for you," the Congressman said.
Turning to Draper, he said, "Thank you for your personal sacrifice so that I can be free. I would not know that freedom if it wasn't for you because it was your language, the Navajo language, that overcame our enemy."
He added that he was working to locate a site where a Navajo veterans' hospital and cemetery could be built.
In a framed letter, President George Bush told Mr. Draper: "As a Nation, we look to America's veterans as examples of courage and sacrifice. During World War II, your bravery helped to defend the ideals that make our country strong. Your patriotism and service continue to inspire us today as we work to advance peace in the world."
U.S. Sen. John McCain, also a Purple Heart recipient, told Mr. Draper: "I a constantly reminded of the devotion and steadfast service that has been shown by our nation's veterans. Our military forces help guarantee the freedom we are all so fortunate to enjoy.
"The Navajo Code Talkers represented such an important element in our fight for freedom during World War II. It is with great honor and respect that I commend you for your service and bravery."
In a special declaration, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano said, "This important and prestigious award recognizes your bravery, leadership and patriotism. All who enjoy the freedom guaranteed by our great nation are the beneficiaries of your sacrifice and courage during World War II. You are truly a testament to the power of the human spirit."
General Mike Hagee, Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, congratulated Draper for his personal courage and skill as a warrior.
"Marines are particularly proud and inspired by the service of those outstanding Marines who were members of the legendary Navajo Code Talkers," he wrote. "Today, we continue to draw strength and inspiration from their great contribution to our victory through their patriotism.
"Your sacrifice for our Nation and Corps is particularly respected. Please be assured that today's Marines are honored to add new luster to the rich legacy that Marines like you have bestowed upon us."
John Chavez, Diversity Membership director of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, described the meaning and history of the Purple Heart medal.
He said it was the oldest military decoration in the world in present use and was the first American award made available to the common soldier. It was created by the first U.S. President, Gen. George Washington, who wanted to show appreciation for the sacrifice and dedication of the common soldier.
According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart Web site, "the Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.
"An organization now known as the Military Order of the Purple Heart, was formed in 1932 for the protection and mutual interest of all who have received the decoration. Composed exclusively of Purple Heart recipients, it is the only veterans service organization comprised strictly of combat veterans."
Serving as Mistress of Ceremonies was Cassandra Morgan, National Service Officer for the Military Order of the Purple Heart and based on the Navajo Nation.