33 years later, Elizabethton man gets Purple Heart

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Bob Ratliff of Elizabethton joined the U.S. Army in 1968. Like many young men of that era, he celebrated his 19th birthday in Vietnam. Also like thousands of other brothers in arms, he was wounded in combat.
   Now, 33 years later, Ratliff finally will receive the Purple Heart, which is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to members of the U.S. military who have been wounded or killed in action. According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an organization for combat-wounded veterans, the medal is "the oldest military decoration in the world in present use and the first award made available to a common soldier."
   Michael "Doc" Murphy of Watauga, who was installed during ceremonies last Saturday in Nashville as the state commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said he has been working very hard to get the award for Ratliff, who was injured in 1970, and "it just came through."
   At 9 a.m. May 30, the U.S. Postal Service will commemorate the oldest military decoration in the world with the issuance of the new Purple Heart postage stamp during ceremonies at the VA Medical Center in Johnson City.
   "We're going to have the Purple Heart Stamp ceremony, and then the colonel from ETSU's ROTC program is going to do the ceremony and presentation of the Purple Heart," Murphy said. Following the presentation, Murphy will swear in Ratliff as a life member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
   Ratliff was in Vietnam during 1970-71 as a member of C Troop, 1st 11th Armored Cavalry regiment. "We had a confrontation with the enemy on 11 June 1970 where I got hit. I got 'dusted off' and spent a week in the rear recuperating. Then they let me go back to my unit," he said.
   "Dusted Off," according to Ratliff, "is when you're injured in combat and they send in a chopper to take you out and to take you to a medical unit to get you fixed back up."
   Ratliff was in the Army to do a job, and while engaged in combat, he wasn't thinking about receiving a medal. When he got out of the military, he still didn't think about it. But, later on down the line, he said, he looked into it and discovered that he was eligible to receive the Purple Heart.
   "But the problem was that nobody could find the medical records. Finally, last year, we were moving, and I was digging through some old things, and I found this unmarked envelope. I opened it and it turned out to be some old medical records from that period of time," Ratliff said.
   "In there was a medical card like they did, I guess, on everybody that got dusted off, and it had the information on there that, yes, it was due to enemy contact and what they thought had happened. I presented that, and the military granted me my Purple Heart. Thirty-three years later, I finally got it," said Ratliff, who is now 51.
   Ratliff said when he was injured he "got hit in the back of the head and neck, and had a concussion. They patched me up and later on let me go back to my unit and I finished my tour."
   According to "Doc" Murphy, "The way it was stated in the report, it looked like he just got swatted by a tree while riding on an APC (Armored Personnel Carrier). They didn't mention that it happened to be in combat, and it was blown into him. So, yes, he got hit in the back of the head with a tree, but it was airborne at the time."
   Ratliff said the injury occurred as he and his company left Cambodia.
   "In 1970, [President Richard M.] Nixon gave permission to push into Cambodia and the 11th Cav was one of the units that spearheaded that push in there, and we were one of the last units to come out. On the way out we got ambushed," Ratliff said.
   "We got really tired of getting hit [by the Vietnamese] and them running across into Cambodia and we couldn't do nothing. So Nixon authorized a 24K push into Cambodia and we kind of caught them with their pants down."
   Cambodia, he said, "was like a home base to work out of, because they knew we couldn't pass over the border after them. And then they got surprised!"
   Ratliff was living in Alabama when he first submitted the paperwork to receive the Purple Heart. He and his wife, Colleen, then moved to Elizabethton to work at the East Tennessee Christian Home, where they are house parents. Ratliff soon learned of Murphy and Randy Lingerfelt, veterans service officer, who were instrumental in helping him get the award.
   "When I got here, I spoke to Doc and he kind of helped me out a little bit, gave me some guidance on what I should be doing, and where I should take this thing -- and then it all paid off," Ratliff said.