All across the country, nearly 70 years later, Korean war veterans are finally getting the medals they deserve, including the Purple Heart.
One of the reasons so many vets didn’t get their medals in the first place is because their records burned in a fire in 1973.
A Sioux Falls Korean war vet is one of those soldiers.
KELOLAND News Investigates why the 91-year-old veteran has yet to receive the thank you his family believes he deserves.
91-year-old Eugene Coyle proudly displays the flag of the country he so valiantly served.
Coyle was drafted during the Korean War at age 24. His first brush with death came on the ship on his way to the foreign land.
“The waves were so big, they would come clear over the ship,” Eugene Coyle said.
But Coyle was about to be put in even graver danger on the front lines, where he went ahead to spot the enemy.
“Then I had to run back down the mountain and the lane to tell them they were coming,” Eugene Coyle said
He has several stories of facing enemy fire.
“We both turned and fired at the same time and I had my rifle. And I had my rifle up and when I turned to fire he fired the same time. And his bullet when under my arm, see I had my arms up, it went under my arms, cut my dog tags off and went under this arm.. (laughter). Oh my gosh! The speed form those high powered rifles you know,” Eugene Coyle said. “And I knew I was a goner because I didn’t have time to swing to fire at him. All he had to do was pull his trigger and we went and threw his rifle down on the ground and put his hands behind his head and he surrendered to me.”
It just so happens his prisoner spoke English and helped him understand the common humanity between enemies.
“You had me, how come you gave up? He said I’m sick of the damn war,” Eugene Coyle said
It’s all documented in Coyle’s letters to his mother back home in Sioux Falls, on fading paper dated June 17, 1951.
“I even captured two of their mates, haha. I think I got anther bronze star. I don’t keep up with that stuff, that medal stuff,” Eugene Coyle reads from letter he wrote.
In all, Coyle was hit by enemy fire at least three times.
“I just made up my mind, there was no way you can survive. And I seen so many men who were shot, wounded and killed,” Eugene Coyle said.
But Coyle did survive, a full year on the battlefield before getting his orders home.
Kennecke: You lived, you lived to tell about it.
Eugene Coyle: You’re damn right.. yeah, yeah!
66 years later, Eugene Coyle is still waiting to be awarded the medals that he was told he earned on the battlefields of Korea.
Kennecke: Did you ever get any kind of recognition?
Coyle: None, I never got anything–no. I was supposed to have the silver star coming. I was put in for it. Never got it.
Kennecke: Do you know why?
Coyle: I never got none of the medals I was put in for.
Five years ago, Coyle’s son Kenny, an army veteran himself, decided to try to change that.
Kenny Coyle: He should receive at least 2 bronze stars; 2 purple hearts at minimum.
Kennecke: Was he let down by his country by not getting these medals?
Kenny: I think so. I think so, yes.
Kenny hired a private researcher to help him find his father’s military records. They found medical reports that said Gene suffered a concussion from enemy fire.
“He also had an eye injury form shrapnel. And that qualifies for a purple heart right there,” Kenny Coyle said.
So Kenny presented all the evidence he’d gathered to Sen. John Thune’s office who helped compile the paperwork and pass it along to the military.
But his hopes were dashed, when Kenny got a series of rejections from the U.S. Army.
First he was told by the National Archives that a major portion of records of Army personnel for the time he served were destroyed in a 1973 fire.
The letter states: “No record has been found to show that you are authorized the Purple Heart.”
“And that they denied it, to maintain the integrity of the Purple Heart,” Kenny Coyle said.
But Kenny’s hopes rose again just this last summer, when an old war injury began bothering Gene. An x-ray showed the shrapnel from artillery blast was still lodged in his back.
“It healed over. But the piece of metal was still there. I didn’t know it, for years later–and it was working itself out–that piece of metal,” Eugene said.
Even though the VA Hospital documented the removal of the wartime shrapnel, that still wasn’t enough for the U.S. Army.
The Army still didn’t have “definitive proof he was initially treated for such injuries.”
“The combat was so heavy and chaotic.. The lines changed hands a number of times. There probably wasn’t a rear area where it could be taken care of properly,” Kenny said.
“Well if it ain’t written down, you don’t get nothing,” Eugene said.
Gene says he can live without the Purple Hearts or Bronze and Silver Stars; that there’s only one honor that really matters to him.
“The one medal that matter to me is my combat badge–my infantry man combat badge. That was the best damn medal you could get. Because? Because you fought so many months combat with a rifle. And you got the combat badge,” Eugene said.
Which he says earned him the respect of younger soldiers.
“There’s a lot of claims to combat veteran status, but here’s a combat veteran. He was a rifleman; he was a machine gunner. He was on a browning automatic rifle on a light 30 and you don’t assign men to those weapons that aren’t the best–the ones you can count on,” Kenny said.
Now, 66 years later, the Coyles wish they could count on the U.S. Army.
“Korea is referred to as the forgotten war. I don’t want my gather to be the forgotten veteran of it,” Kenny Coyle said.
“Yeah,” Eugene Coyle said.
Because of the lack of records, whether lost the fire, or never kept, it also took 50 years for Gene to get service related disability payments.
The Coyles don’t understand if he could get that, why he can’t get the medals of honor for his sacrifice.
Kenny has appealed the Army’s decision. Sen. Thune declined an interview for this story, but did send us a video statement saying his office will assist in that effort.
KELOLAND News also contacted the U.S. Army and were directed to the office that handled Korean War veteran medals. But that office is closed until Monday.