WASHINGTON — Military medals are more than merely decorative, which is why lawmakers spend so much time going to bat for veterans like Fresno resident Earl Watson.
Watson is 85, the last man standing from his World War II Army regiment. He says he was wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. Because he lacks documentation, though, he's been denied the Purple Heart — a fact that brings tears to his eyes.
"If you earn something, you should get it," Watson said. "You shouldn't have to fight your government for it."
But many veterans do.
Watson is one of many San Joaquin Valley veterans who've tried, sometimes for years, to obtain the medals and decorations they believe they're owed. They confront strict standards, bureaucratic impediments, imperfect wartime paperwork and the consequences of a catastrophic 1973 fire that destroyed millions of personnel records.
They aren't powerless, though.
Congressional offices frequently track down medals and other benefits. It's considered constituent casework, an integral part of the congressional job. It's also politically smart. Veterans, like senior citizens who get help with missing Social Security checks, tend to remember fondly the assistance they receive with medals.
The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis receives roughly 4,000 congressional requests a year on behalf of potential medal recipients, a spokeswoman said Friday.
Watson, for one, received earlier this year the Good Conduct Medal, Marksman's Badge and four other medals from his World War II service. The long-missing medals arrived after the office of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, weighed in on Watson's behalf.
"Since Jim took office (in 2005), we have successfully recovered medals for over 60 veterans," said Costa's press secretary, Will Crain.
Similarly, staffers for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, say they've secured medals or decorations for seven Valley veterans since January. In the office of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, staffers say they typically handle between two and five medal requests every month.
"We've tried to help people, but sometimes we run into bureaucratic holdups," said Radanovich's chief of staff, Ted Maness.
Some medals, in particular, are more elusive than others.
Upgrading one medal to another can take years. In 2008, after a long delay and the intervention of Cardoza's office, Merced resident and World War II veteran Mike Samberg received a Silver Star to replace a Bronze Star initially awarded for heroism with the 26th Infantry Division in France.
Purple Hearts, awarded for wounds in battle, are both treasured and tough to get after the fact. Radanovich's office tried without success to secure two Purple Hearts this year for veterans who couldn't provide the necessary proof, staffer Sarah Higginbotham noted.
"The Purple Heart has very strict guidelines, and to be awarded a Purple Heart years after service is very difficult," Higginbotham said.
Watson said his proof may have been blown up.
A resident of Fresno for the past 23 years, Watson served in Company C of the 1317th Engineer General Service Regiment, an African-American unit attached to Gen. George Patton's hard-charging Third Army. After spending 17 months in England, Watson landed in France on D-Day.
While traveling in a convoy, Watson says, his vehicle was either hit by a bomb or ran over a mine. He says he was in a coma for three days, and was held in a hospital for 11 days. He says the hospital was subsequently destroyed by a bomb or artillery shell, wiping out any records that might have helped his postwar medal search.
He believes racism has hindered him, as well.
"The thing that hurts is that white soldiers get the Purple Heart all the time," Watson said.
Costa's office is still seeking Watson's Purple Heart, working through the St. Louis-based National Personnel Records Center. There, another kind of catastrophe causes problems. On July 12, 1973, a fire wiped out an estimated 18 million files, including most Army personnel records covering the years 1912 and 1959, as well as many Air Force documents covering the years 1947 and 1963.
Even when records exist, they may not be adequate to support a veteran's claim. That doesn't necessarily mean the claim was false, but it may say something about the fog of war or the failure to keep papers intact while in a foxhole.
One former Modesto resident, who has since passed away, long sought congressional help to secure an after-the-fact Medal of Honor for his World War II service in the Pacific. His heroism and service were unquestioned. His Marine division's records, though, did not confirm his most spectacular achievements.
Valley congressional staffers who handle medal requests say the veterans they deal with all appear to be on the up and up.
"If the president of the United States, Barack Obama, knew about this, he'd give (the medal) to me in an instant," Watson said.