Photo courtesy of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor
When Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Aviles visited the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in 2010, he quickly searched the database for members of his branch of service - the Coast Guard. After many searches, he could only find one name, Nathan Breckenthal, a Gulf War veteran. But Aviles knew - even just thinking of names he'd learned at boot camp - there must be many more than that.
He couldn't even find Douglas Munro, a famous Coast Guard Purple Heart recipient who was KIA and the first Coast Guard servicemember to receive the Medal of Honor.
This discovery led Aviles to enlist the aid of over a dozen organizations, a historian and other Coast Guard servicemembers and veterans to track down the names of the outfit's Purple Heart recipients.
Now, nearly five years later, he has a list with more than 1,250 names. He said of those, there were about 400 names left to cross-reference at the National Archives for documentation.
Once that has been done, Aviles will present the list and documentation to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor so the recipients can be added to their database.
No branch of service has a "dedicated" list of its Purple Heart recipients. If the project is successful, the Coast Guard will be the first, Aviles said.
The first names Aviles found were Vietnam veterans whose riverine boat took friendly fire from an aircraft. Several of the men aboard were killed. This made Aviles more interested in Vietnam-era Coast Guard veterans, and he said this is how he learned about Heriberto Hernandez, a Coast Guard fallen hero for whom a Sentinel-class fast response cutter was recently named.
"Each person that you read about you just learn so much about them, what they did prior to, and who they were," Aviles said.
What is already an ambitious undertaking is further complicated because the Coast Guard falls under the Navy during war time. So Aviles searched the National Archives databases online, looking line by line through the Navy records for "Coast Guard" and "Purple Heart" or wounded or KIA.
"I enlisted several of my colleagues at work in-between and during their breaks," Aviles said. He divvied up the work state by state, asking volunteers to print out any page with a Coast Guard member and give it to him. He would follow-up from there.
"Then I realized it's very difficult to spend time staring at a computer but also I wasn't 100 percent sure that this was the only way," Aviles said.
About this time, Aviles realized that the Coast Guard historian for his district worked in the same building as him--just upstairs. He approached William Thiesen, the Coast Guard's Atlantic area historian, who was enthusiastic from the get-go, Aviles said.
Thiesen was able to help a lot, Aviles said, including putting him in touch with Coast Guard contacts in St. Louis, who could actually go to the National Archives' Military Personnel Records Center and help do the necessary in-person research.
But this “slow, tedious” teamwork is paying off.
“To my knowledge, about a year ago, they had about 200 names now on the list at the national Purple Heart museum. So, we’re getting better, and since we have a large group of people now, physically bringing hands on the files of these members, we’ve been able to gather a lot of information,” he said.
However, the level of documentation required to make it into the Hall of Honor’s database is extensive, and often that means personal contact must be made.
"We knew that we'd have to reach out to family members and close friends, and even though that was difficult, that became the best part of it," Aviles said.
In the process of reaching out to relatives and veterans for more information, Aviles got to know Frank Spatuzzi, a World War II Purple Heart recipient.
"Before he joined the Coast Guard when the war started, he had a baseball scholarship to Seton Hall. He gave that up to go to war and because of his injuries, he was never able to pursue that," Aviles said.
Through the many connections and unlikely pathways the Purple Heart list project has taken, Aviles was able to nominate Spatuzzi for Stand & Salute American Heroes. As part of this, Spatuzzi threw the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game in 2011.
Aviles said it was "rewarding" to see Spatuzzi receive this recognition but also "bittersweet" - Spatuzzi passed away several months after that game.
What began as a side-project has becoming eye-opening for Aviles, and has deepened his understanding of service.
"I wear the uniform with a lot more pride. Most people only look at history to check a box. When I was in boot camp, I needed to know specific things that they provided, and they talked about Douglas Munro. We did it, we took the test, we checked the box and then we moved on," Aviles said. "These are the people that did defend the country and some of them lost their lives or their limbs on the battlefield. . . . I try to wear the uniform and do the right thing to honor them and their families."
If you know a Coast Guard veteran who received a Purple Heart and want to be sure they are added to the list, contact Thiesen: http://www.uscg.mil/history/web/aboutoffice.asp
(For more on the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, read this story:http://www.legion.org/stories/community-memorials-monuments/hall-honor-a...)