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Calling all Purple Heart recipients for a special recognition

Russell Smith wondered why his wife had occasionally peppered him with questions about his service as a Marine in Vietnam. He had been awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds he received there on two occasions in 1969. It was old news, but she seemed interested, so he answered as best he could.

Smith's wife, Barbara, was compiling the information for the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in Vails Gate, N.Y., which is seeking names and other information about Purple Heart recipients. Ultimately, the names will be added to a master list of those wounded or killed while in service to the country.

"She saw on the Internet that they wanted all war veterans to contact the Hall of Honor," said Russell Smith, 59. "My wife contacted them. She got all the information. I didn't even know she was doing it."

Last summer the couple traveled to the museum, where Smith saw for the first time all that his wife had done.

"I was really surprised at everything they had," he said. "They had the 26 medals I had earned and the history of everything. I wasn't expecting all that."

The couple are on a mission now, trying to get other servicemen and women to submit their information. It's a goal that pleases Anita Pidala, director of the Hall of Honor museum, which opened in 2006.

"Our mission is to get out as much of the story as possible," she said.

There is no one place to find a listing of all the Purple Heart recipients, which some estimate to number 1.8 million, said Pidala. Because of privacy restrictions, she said, the various branches of service cannot release the information, so she requests discharge records from family, friends and guardians.

"We are working on building the partnership (with the military branches) so that we can automatically receive the information," she said. "For now, we only get the name if it is given to us."

The Hall of Honor has collected 145,000 names so far, Pidala said. Historians there want to preserve the stories of those wounded or killed during combat in all branches of service.

"We are a database, basically," she said. "We enter the information, scan the photos and share it with the public. It's an educational tool, a way to recognize the recipients."

In addition to photos, museum officials will scan postcards, letters and other memorabilia, Pidala said. The Hall contains exhibits, live and videotaped interviews with veterans, and the Roll of Honor, an interactive computer program detailing the stories of each individual.

An abbreviated version is available on line at www.thepurpleheart.com.

The original Purple Heart medal was established by George Washington in 1782 for enlisted men and non-commissioned officers. Washington awarded the honor, then called the "Badge of Military Merit," to three sergeants while at his final encampment at the end of the Revolutionary War. That site is now the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site in Vails Gate, home of the museum, where one of the original badges is on display.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur revived the medal and renamed it the Purple Heart for the color and shape of Washington's badge, which was made of cloth.

In 1932, at the historic site on the anniversary of Washington's 200th birthday, 150 veterans of World War I received their Purple Heart.

At the museum, Barbara Smith said, "the countryside is beautiful, and the people were really friendly."

"They want him (Russell Smith) to come back and make a video so they can keep the memories in their archives," she said.

"Anything that anybody has, they want to put it in there," Russell Smith said.

The 45-minute video would be of his recollections of his military service and how he was wounded twice in Vietnam in 1969, he said. His first injury came when mortar fire caused the jeep in which he was riding to explode, sending him in the air and landing off a bridge, 2 feet in the mud. Skin was torn off half his face. He spent about two months recuperating on a hospital ship.

The second time was also in 1969, near Cambodia.

"The enemy had us pinned down, and I got hit in the right thigh," Smith said. He waited five days without food or water to be rescued.

"I had a hole in my leg big enough to put your hand in," he said. "They said one more day and they would have had to amputate my leg."

Smith remained a Marine for 22 years, reaching the rank of sergeant before retiring after a six-month stint in Desert Storm.

Smith has become an advocate for the museum because veterans don't always get the recognition they deserve, he said, especially Vietnam War veterans.

"I really felt good about my country, and that they recognized me for my dedication to my country during the war," Smith said of his visit to the museum. "So many weren't recognized for anything."

The Smiths want to change that for all Purple Heart recipients. Barbara Smith has become so eager to get others in Central Kentucky listed, she said she recently approached a stranger whose car had a Purple Heart emblem on the back. "I was going to put a note on the window or something," she said. "But the woman said she was from that area and already knew about it."

With Saturday being Armed Forces Day, now may be a good time to ensure a place in history for yourself or a loved one in the museum. After what those servicemen and women have done for us, it certainly isn't that much of a bother.

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