Purple Heart Memorial

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, August 12, 2007

On a clear, cool Saturday morning, even the shots ringing from a 21-gun salute couldn’t disturb the peace around Capitol Park.

But the fewer than 100 people who turned out for the 16th annual Purple Heart Veterans Day ceremony on the west steps of the state Capitol were not marking the pleasures of peace, but the sacrifices of war.

Specifically, they were honoring the lives lost and wounds sustained by those whom Lt. Gov. John Garamendi called “those brave men and women who answered our nation’s call and suffered wounds at the hands of our enemies.”

And they were there to watch as Garamendi pinned the Purple Heart on Sgt. John Gehweiler of Roseville for injuries sustained in Iraq. It was Gehweiler’s second Purple Heart.

Gehweiler, accompanied by his wife and toddler son, as well as by his parents, accepted the award quietly. It was more than two years in coming, but it was welcome nonetheless.

Speaking the day before the ceremony, Gehweiler recounted the afternoon of Aug. 29, 2005, when his truck hit an explosive device on the road back to his base.

The shrapnel tore through the floor of the truck he was driving and “a hunk of metal the size of a golf ball” lodged in his right arm. He performed emergency first aid on himself and his female Iraqi interpreter.

He said he didn’t bleed to death from a severed artery only because “the shrapnel was so hot that it cauterized the artery.” His interpreter wasn’t so lucky — she died on the operating table a few hours later.

Gehweiler, 24, has left the military, with the use of his right arm severely limited by his wounds. He is going to vocational rehabilitation and has started a new life with his young family. His father, Dan Gehweiler, said that John is good with computers.

“We are optimistic,” said his father.

Still, Sgt. Gehweiler — whose first day of basic training was Sept. 11, 2001 — feels his work for his country isn’t quite done.

“I’ve wished many, many times that I could still go back,” he said. “I’m one of those people who believes that without the sacrifice of a few, this country wouldn’t exist.”

Al Shook, a member of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, agreed. For him, the Purple Heart “means everything.”

“The Purple Heart means more to me than any other award I have,” said Shook, a Korean War veteran. “Because it is for actually shedding your blood. There are a lot of awards you can get, for being a good guy, a good leader or smart. But the one that means the most is the one you actually shed your blood for.”

It took a while for Gehweiler to grasp the meaning of being a member of a very select group.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “I didn’t think anything about it until I came home, and you’re surrounded by guys from World War II and Korea and Vietnam, and you realize that they shared an experience. Every war’s different, but they’re all the same, too. You get shot at. They treat you like a brother, you have a common bond, you shed blood for the country. It feels like one of the biggest honors, that you’ve given so much for the country.”

In his speech, Garamendi noted that California has more military members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other state, as well as the highest number of dead and wounded. After 16 years, California is still the only state that celebrates a Purple Heart Veterans Day.

Several attendees noted that, for a statewide event, it was a meager turnout. Among those in the folding white plastic chairs were tourists planning to see the Capitol building and a homeless woman. Most were empty.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Shirlee Horne of El Dorado Hills. Her husband, Art, is a Purple Heart recipient, and was himself greeting visitors with a hearty smile and handshake.

Catching herself, Horne added, “I know that sounds harsh to say, but from my heart, that’s how I feel. More people should be out here, not just family members.”

For Sgt. Gehweiler, one got the sense that family was enough. When someone commented that he seemed to be the only person present who didn’t give a speech, he responded, “That’s OK with me.”

Meanwhile, Gehweiler’s 2-year-old son Willie was jumping up and down at the sound of the 21-gun salute, happily crying out “Fireworks!” He was oblivious to the gravity of the moment, but others were well aware of how close he came to growing up without his dad around.

Dan Gehweiler, who owns a landscaping business in Roseville, is also a veteran. He still remembers a neighbor in Edgewater Park, N.J., where he grew up.

“Eddie Cruz,” he said, recalling the neighborhood kid who enlisted. “He didn’t come back.”

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