Two Purple Hearts, each earned more than half a century ago on the other side of the world, were awarded Monday at a ceremony at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park on National Purple Heart Day.
One of the medals went to Mykola "Nick" Shwec of Buffalo, who'd received a Purple Heart medal once before, but because the commendation was never recorded on his discharge papers he hadn't been able to get the benefits he was entitled to for being injured in combat.
The other was given to the family of the late Michael Licata, a soldier from Buffalo whose paperwork showed he had earned a Purple Heart, but who never received the medal, according to his relatives.
Shwec remembered getting his Purple Heart medal in Vietnam. He was a specialist in the U.S. Army, which he joined in 1964 after graduating from Hutchinson Central Technical High School. On March 13 1966, the helicopter he was in came under enemy fire. Shrapnel struck his right arm. "I didn't even know I was injured," Shwec recalled, until another soldier told him "You're bleeding." Blood was pouring from his bicep. "You're going to get a Purple Heart."
Shwec earned many medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross awarded to members of the military for extraordinary achievements while in flight. Five days after his injury, Shwec was back in a helicopter as a door gunner on a medical evacuation of Vietnamese forces operating near Duc Hoa, according to an account read Monday by Rep. Brian Higgins. A Vietnamese force had engaged a Viet Cong force and several were injured. The friendly force had marked a landing zone with red smoke, but the Viet Cong also put up red smoke. As the helicopter took heavy fire, Shwec returned fire and also determined where he believed the friendly forces were. The helicopter was able to land and retrieve the injured Vietnamese.
Shwec, now 74 and retired after working at Westinghouse, Curtis Wright and Ford Motor Co., went to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo looking for help in finding a fellow gunner, a man he remembered only as "Dennis" who was from Pittsburgh, when a veterans service officer asked him about his health care coverage. After she discovered that Shwec's Purple Heart wasn't included in his DD-214 papers, she reached out to Higgins' office, which helped get the paperwork changed.
Shwec was a little shy about all the attention Monday as both the congressman and Mayor Byron W. Brown commended him at the ceremony. But he said he did it for his fellow veterans. "The important thing is how it helps people," he said. Purple Heart recipients qualify for an array of health care benefits at the VA, including exemptions from co-pays for hospital and outpatient care.
Also honored Monday was Licata, who served as a private during the Korean War. Not much is known about the Buffalo native's service during the war but his widow, Josephine, said she knows he was injured on Aug. 10, 1952. That was her birthday. "He said he could never forget that day," she said.
Licata's discharge papers show he earned a Purple Heart but his family said he never received it. They reached out to Higgins' office and on Monday, they received the medal for him.
"He probably would have been embarrassed by this," his son Michael said. "But proud."