A World War II veteran's last battle
A soldier seeks further recognition for his lieutenant

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

As far as he knew, John Robinson was dead.

It had been more than 50 years since Ed Malouf had seen his former lieutenant. But here was a letter to the editor in the Army's 78th Infantry Division magazine signed by Robinson.

Malouf suddenly had a chance to get back in touch -- not only to reminisce about World War II, the Battle of the Bulge and that terrible freezing, deadly winter in the forest, but also to tell Robinson at long last how his heroism continued to inspire him.

When they reconnected in 1999, Malouf, of Dallas, was thrilled to be back in touch with Robinson, of Severna Park, but disheartened to hear that the man he considered a selfless hero had not been more highly decorated. And so with the help of others, Malouf launched a years-long crusade to get Robinson a Silver Star and a Purple Heart he thinks he deserves. It was an odyssey that would involve members of Congress, countless letters and e-mails and culminate with a quiet surprise last spring.

Although Robinson, 87, considers the issue long immaterial -- and is embarrassed by the attention -- Malouf's quest continues on this Veterans Day. He's 84 years old, and, with one battle left to fight, he says he won't stop.

High standards

Affidavits and research gleaned from archives are the weapons of choice for veterans trying to ensure that their fellow soldiers are decorated for long-ago battles.

All those awards might seem superfluous and dated -- why, after all these years, does it matter? But to those fluent in the military's hieroglyphics, which paint the narrative of a soldier's career in the ribbons, medals and patches on their uniforms, there is little else as sacred.

Which is why the Army has such high standards for awards to be issued years after the fact and treats the process like an investigation in which the burden is to prove service, achievement and valor beyond a reasonable doubt. Sometimes it's an open-and-shut case: A quick check of the hospital records reveals the soldier in question was wounded by gunfire and should have been awarded a Purple Heart, or, as happened, the never-processed paperwork was found decades later in a box in the attic.

Medals such as the Bronze and Silver Stars and Distinguished Service Cross are reviewed by an Army decorations board but first need a recommendation from a member of Congress when they are sought years after the fact. Typically, the Army receives about 200 of these requests annually, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Thomas Baxter, the deputy chief of the military awards branch at the Army Human Resources Command. Others, such as the Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge and campaign medals, are decided by the command's staff.

Although most are approved after appropriate documentation is submitted, many are turned down because of insufficient evidence in what Baxter said was a purposefully cumbersome process designed to balance the desire to recognize service members with maintaining "the integrity of the awards system."

An obligation

Getting his men the recognition he thought they deserved drove John Poindexter "nearly to the edge" for six years.

Poindexter, the former commander of Alpha Troop, First Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, wanted his men recognized for rescuing 100 soldiers during the Vietnam War. But he understands why the process is so difficult: "If these things were easy to get, if all you had to do was send in a self-addressed envelope, it would be pointless."

President Obama awarded the soldiers the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest honor given to a military unit. In the Rose Garden ceremony, Obama said that the graying Vietnam veterans "defined the meaning of bravery and heroism" and that honoring them was "a sacred obligation." He singled out Poindexter for realizing "that their service had been overlooked. He felt he had to right a wrong."

Which is exactly what Malouf thinks he's doing.

For nearly 10 years, he has been trying to get his former lieutenant more recognition, even though Robinson was awarded a Bronze Star Medal with valor in 1945. The citation says he "accompanied assaulting elements of his company in an attack" on a well-fortified German position, fighting in "deep snow, open terrain."

He also pulled several of his injured men off the battlefield, said retired Army Col. Douglas Nash, a military historian who has studied the Battle of the Bulge and tried to get Robinson a Purple Heart.

"He was crawling so he wouldn't get mowed down with machine gun fire to rescue these guys so they weren't left to the Germans," he said.

Those efforts caused Robinson to suffer a hernia -- the injury Nash and others think qualifies him for a Purple Heart. Robinson was sent to a hospital in Paris, where his bed was next to one of his fellow lieutenants who had been badly wounded. "I asked him how his leg was," Robinson recalled in an interview, "and he pulled back the cover, and he didn't have to say anything. His leg was gone."

Robinson said that he was offered a Purple Heart in the hospital but that he "didn't feel that I deserved it after seeing him lying there."

He still feels that way. But he's touched that one of his former soldiers would work so hard on his behalf and consented to an interview for this report only because Malouf and others "have put so much time and effort into it."

The Army has repeatedly rejected the Purple Heart requests, saying the injuries were not the direct result of enemy action.

Malouf continues to press on. But in the spring, he grew worried that his former lieutenant would die before getting his honor, and so he arrived unannounced at Robinson's home bearing a gift.

He handed his own Purple Heart to Robinson.

"You deserve it more than I do," he said.

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