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Overdue medals awarded to WWII veterans

WILMORE — The first time J.B. Walton flew in an airplane, he jumped out of it. It was during World War II, and Walton was training to be a paratrooper.

He eventually made a lot more jumps. Walton fought in Italy, France and Belgium, endured bitter cold in the Battle of the Bulge, and was wounded. All that qualified him for a lot of medals. But he never got them.

Until Wednesday, when Walton, now 84, received all of his overdue medals in ceremonies at Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore. Eighteen other veterans of various wars also received medals they had earned but never received.

Walton's medals included the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge, American Campaign Medal, Expert Badge with Rifle Bar, Sharpshooter Badge with Carbine Bar and Parachutist Badge.

He said that finally getting them, so long after his first parachute jump, meant a lot.

"You had to make five jumps in training," he recalled. "And just about all of us in the outfit had never been up in an airplane when we had to make our first training jump."

Walton is from Lexington but has lived at the Thomson-Hood center since suffering a stroke about a year ago. Most of the other men who got medals Wednesday also are full-time center residents.

Jim Vannoy, a center volunteer and retired Army sergeant major, says that when veterans move into the Wilmore facility, the state Department of Veterans Affairs checks to see what medals they're entitled to. If they're missing medals — which isn't that unusual — the department works to get them.

"A lot of World War II veterans never got their medals even though they earned them," Vannoy said. "They were issued ribbons to wear on their uniforms but not the actual medals, because there was a metal shortage at the time."

It can take months of digging through old military records to confirm that a veteran is entitled to a medal he or she earned decades ago.

But when officials build up a list of veterans who are entitled to medals, they hold a ceremony, like the one Wednesday, to present them. The Thomson-Hood center has presented more than 1,300 medals during the past four years.

Vannoy said he feels a particular urgency to get World War II veterans their medals because so many are passing away.

Sadly, it's not unusual for veterans to die while officials are searching records to get them their medals, he said.