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Purple Heart Float

Military Honored for Its Sacrifices, From Pearl Harbor to Iraq

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A39

They were wounded in early morning during the grueling assault of Iwo Jima, late at night on an abandoned street in Baghdad. In Korea and Vietnam, booby traps and land mines left their bodies embedded with shrapnel, and in Panama, the enemy's bullets shattered bone and worse.

Today, their sacrifice will be honored on Pennsylvania Avenue. And although the entire inaugural parade is dedicated to those in uniform, the float adorned with the larger-than-life Purple Heart holds special significance.


James Hontz Jr., a Vietnam veteran, came up with the idea of having every modern conflict represented on the Purple Heart float. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

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The veterans riding it not only served but paid a price, sometimes steep, for doing so.

The battles, the trauma, the pain -- "It never leaves you, I don't think," said James Hontz Jr. of Riverdale, a Purple Heart recipient from the Vietnam War and the man most responsible for his fellow veterans' appearance today.

Hontz's idea several months ago was to have every conflict of modern times represented on the float, a 36-foot-long platform with the simple outline adornments of red, white and blue stars. "From Pearl Harbor to Iraqi Freedom," he thought, a span of more than 60 years. "This is the real way to do it."

For a nation with troops engaged for the long haul half a world away, the military decoration that he and the others wear brings the fighting home in a highly personal way. According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the medal is bestowed on individuals wounded "by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy." It was the first in this country given to the rank-and-file soldier. Commander-in-chief George Washington initiated the award more than two centuries ago, and it is his bust and coat of arms on the medal pinned on recipients.

These days, Hontz is a retired phone company engineer, but back in 1966, he was a Maryland boy drafted into the Army's 25th Division. As he wryly puts it, his induction earned an "all-expenses-paid vacation to beautiful Southeast Asia," where he was assigned to a mortar platoon operating out of a jungle base camp called Cu Chi.

His is a classic wrong-place-wrong-time tale. He took another man's place on an evening ambush patrol, and as he and the others were scouting, one tripped a booby trap. Hontz was lucky. The injuries to his face were far less extensive than the damage suffered by the rest.

Hontz, 61, drives weekly to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit soldiers. Several of the veterans with him on today's float regularly do the same, if not at Walter Reed then at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. They want to ensure that the men and women there feel the solidarity of comrades as they endure their surgeries and rehabilitation.

Ed Schnug of Alexandria has met returning casualties at Andrews Air Force Base nearly a dozen times. He welcomes them home, wishes them luck and recovery. "I know how they feel. I tell them, 'Hang in there, troop,' " said the retired Marine sergeant major, who six decades ago was shot in the right leg during the battle to capture the Pacific island of Iwo Jima.

Although Schnug also was wounded in Korea -- "I still have a couple of metal rods in the arm," he said -- he will represent World War II on the Purple Heart float today. He is senior by conflict and age and is straight-talking in a way that reflects both. A marcher in Richard Nixon's inaugural parade in 1969 and Ronald Reagan's in 1981, the octogenarian did not hesitate when approached about participating again.

"It would be an honor," Schnug said.

Representing the Korean War will be former machine gunner Carl Winterwerp, now of Brandywine but once of G Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. He considers his appearance a way to honor the forces now overseas in Iraq. "I feel very strongly that we have to back them fully," he said. "I just wish it would be over with."

Winterwerp, 71, a retired construction inspector for Prince George's County, is sadly familiar with some of their experiences. Memory takes him back to the summer of '52 and the west coast of Korea. He had been in the country eight months, and on that clear June morning, he was on patrol to a listening post on the main line of resistance. The Chinese had rigged the location with mines, and "one of the boys stepped on them and set them off."

Three of them had legs blown off. Winterwerp's were severely hurt, and only multiple operations aboard the hospital ship USS Constellation saved them. He was sent to a California hospital, then to Bethesda, where the Washington native met his wife on a blind date during his recuperation. They have been married 51 years.

He remembers the country's salute to his service as nonchalant disregard. "They didn't hardly acknowledge us," he said.

Along with Hontz, Andrew H. Anderson will ride the float for Vietnam veterans. The Eastern Shore resident, 76, was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade while commander of the Army's 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 5th Infantry. Seven months of rehabilitation in Pennsylvania helped him ultimately regain full use of his arms and legs.

He applauds the inaugural parade's theme, "Celebrating Freedom and Honoring Service." "It seems timely to me that we give this visibility to our veterans," he said.

Another Marine, Greg Johnson, 40, of Columbia, received his battle scars in Panama in late 1989. President George H.W. Bush had sent in the military to remove Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega from power; before their stay ended, 24 were killed.

Johnson was helping to set up a roadblock in the town of Arijhan when a car came "flying through" with a spray of gunfire. Bullets hit the staff sergeant in the forehead, jaw and shoulder. The one in his jaw continued into his spine, cracking a cervical vertebra and lodging in his back to this day.

The plane that flew him out was filled with casualties, some of whom died en route. Johnson, now a salesman, decided his inaugural participation was an tribute to them, "to represent the guys who didn't make it down there."

Each of the veterans who will wave to the parade crowds reflects the times of his or her mission. The men of World War II and Korea were teenagers when called into service. By contrast, Susan Sonnheim, deployed in 2003 for her first active duty, is 46. The Wisconsin nurse also is a member of the Army National Guard, as are many of the soldiers fighting in Iraq.

Sonnheim, a sergeant with the 32nd Military Police Company out of Madison, arrived at Walter Reed 16 months ago after being wounded in Baghdad. It happened barely 25 meters from the police headquarters where her squad was stationed. She and half a dozen others had been ordered to check out an informant's report, and she was the first that night to see the box and wires in the middle of the road. She yelled and turned.

"We started to run. I got the brunt of it," she said. The explosives detonated, shrapnel ripping into her arms, legs, face and neck. Sonnheim was blown into the air. In a split second of noise and light and stars, she thought she was dead.

She has lost all use of her left eye; the vision in her right is badly blurred. While medical procedures continue, her pain is acute. Cold temperatures bother her most, yet no matter what the weather today, she will be on board the Purple Heart float when it turns onto Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I served my country," Sonnheim said. "I'm proud of what I did."


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