Elizabethton man receives Purple Heart as stamp unveiled

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Before we became a nation that changed the dates of holidays so that we could celebrate a three-day weekend, Memorial Day traditionally was celebrated on May 30.
   This year, the traditional holiday was poignant because it was marked by the U.S. Postal Service's unveiling of the Purple Heart stamp, 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.
   For Bob Ratliff of Elizabethton, Friday was an especially wonderful day. Ratliff, a Vietnam veteran who was wounded during combat, finally was awarded the Purple Heart following the unveiling of the stamp during ceremonies at the V.A. Mountain Home in Johnson City.
   Vickie Shipley, postmaster, and Michael "Doc" Murphy, state commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, gave the Tri-Cities the first glimpse of the long-awaited Purple Heart stamp, which was made available nationwide Friday. Marines from Lima 3/24 in Gray were on hand to post and retire the colors.
   Ratliff, who was injured while pulling a tour of Vietnam in 1970-71 as a member of C Troop, 1st 11th Armored Cavalry, was presented the Purple Heart by Lt. Col. Craig E. Terry of the U.S. Army Infantry.
   "I've been blessed. It was worth the 33-year wait to get it on the same day that the Purple Heart stamp came out," Ratliff said. "I think it was one of the highlights of my life. My son was there, and my wife was there, and a lot of friends showed up."
   Ratliff, who with his wife, Colleen, are houseparents at East Tennessee Christian Children's Home, said some youths from the home came to the VA to observe the ceremony.
   In receiving the award, Ratliff told the group, "If I had one wish I could make, I would wish that nobody else had to get a Purple Heart because of what you have to go through to be eligible for it.
   "But they do it with such pride and self-sacrifice, and it's all done because of their devotion to the freedoms that we enjoy in our country."
   Ratliff said he, like many other veterans, still suffers from problems caused by his injury in Vietnam, "but the VA is there for you and they take care of you."
   Following the presentation, Ratliff and Staff Sgt. Johnnie McKnight of the Marine Recruiting Office in Johnson City were sworn in by Murphy as life members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. According to Murphy, McKnight was awarded the Purple Heart after being injured in Somalia.
   The Military Order of the Purple Heart is the only congressionally chartered veterans organization exclusively for combat-wounded veterans. It represents veterans before the federal government, offers assistance to veterans and their families, and also participates in numerous charitable programs.
   The Purple Heart is the oldest military decoration in the world in present use and the first award made available to a common soldier. The official first day of issuance ceremony took place Friday morning at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens in Mt. Vernon, Va.
   "Gen. George Washington created the Purple Heart decoration as a way to honor and thank the brave soldiers who fought under his command," said Postmaster General John E. Potter, who dedicated the stamp. "Now, it is our turn to do the same and continue Washington's patriotic tradition. With the issuance of this stamp, the Postal Service, along with the rest of America, can pay tribute to the men and women whose sacrifices have given all of us a country that is truly the 'land of the free and the home of the brave.'"
   The stamp features a photograph by Ira Wexler of one of two Purple Hearts awarded to James Loftus Fowler of Alexandria, Va. Fowler was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines and was serving as battalion commander of the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines when he received the Purple Heart in 1968, following action near the Ben Hai River on the border between North and South Vietnam.
   For more information about the stamp visit www.usps.com/shop.