ST. PETER, Minn. (AP) — Earl Meyer remembers in vivid detail when his platoon came under heavy fire during the Korean War — he still has shrapnel embedded in his thigh.
But over 70 years later, the 96-year-old is still waiting for the U.S. Army to recognize his injury and to award him a Purple Heart medal, which honors service members wounded or killed in combat.
Meyer has provided the Army with documents to back up his assertion that he was wounded in combat in June 1951. Doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed that his account of the shrapnel coming from a mortar attack was probably true. But few men in his unit who would have witnessed the battle have survived, and he thinks the medic who treated him on the battlefield was killed before he could file the paperwork.
An Army review board in April issued what it called a final rejection of Meyer’s request for a Purple Heart, citing insufficient documentation. His case highlights how it can be a struggle for wounded veterans to get medals they’ve earned when the fog of war, the absence of records and the passage of time make it challenging to produce proof.
“At first I didn’t know that I had been wounded,” Meyer wrote in a sworn statement that was part of his rejected appeal. “But as my unit advanced from where the mortar rounds were hitting, I noticed that my pants were sticking to my leg. I reached down to correct this and discovered that my hand was covered in blood.”
Meyer took the rare step of suing the Department of Defense and the Army in September. The Army’s Office of Public Affairs said it doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation. But after The Associated Press made requests for comment on Meyer’s case, the office of the Army’s top noncommissioned officer, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Weimer, said that it’s going to take another look.
“The Sergeant Major of the Army’s Office is engaging with Mr. Meyer’s family and looking into the situation,” spokesperson Master Sgt. Daniel Wallace said. “Either way, we’re proud of Mr. Meyer’s service to our country.”
Meyer said in an interview that he wouldn’t have pursued the Purple Heart because his injuries were relatively minor compared to those of many men he served with, but his three daughters persuaded him. Growing up, they knew that he had been injured in the war, but like many veterans, he never talked much about it. It’s only been in the past decade or so that he’s opened up to them, which led them to urge his pursuit of a Purple Heart.
“I think it will provide closure for him. I really do,” said his daughter, Sandy Baker, of New Buffalo, Michigan.
Tony Cross, a disability claims and appeals specialist with the American Legion, the country’s largest veterans’ service organization, said the Legion doesn’t commonly see cases like Meyer’s of medals denied, though it did see one earlier this year. The process is challenging because each military branch has its own approval process and it gets more challenging after a veteran leaves the military, he said.
Meyer’s main obstacle has been the lack of paperwork. He told the AP the medic who bandaged his leg told him he would file the forms to show he was wounded in combat. But he never did. Meyer thinks the medic may have been killed in action. Only a few members of his platoon made it out unharmed.
At the time, Meyer wasn’t hurt badly enough to leave the battlefield. But Army medical records show he injured his back a few days later when he fell down a hill while carrying a machine gun, and then aggravated it again days later while lifting ammunition. He was evacuated to a MASH unit, then a hospital ship. The records show his treatment included a tetanus shot, apparently for the shrapnel injury.
“I still had the hole in my pants and the blood on it,” he said about the time he was hospitalized for his back. He said he still had the patch on his leg. “I should have told them at that time.”
But he wasn’t thinking then about gathering paperwork for a future medal. His mind was on survival.
“I was just glad to get out of there,” he said.
Accidental back injuries generally don’t qualify a service member for a Purple Heart, but wounds from enemy shrapnel can.
Meyer finished out his tour guarding prisoners of war. He was honorably discharged in 1952. His decorations included the Combat Infantryman Badge, which is reserved for those who actively participate in ground combat under enemy fire. He also received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service in the Merchant Marine in World War II.
He still has coffee with fellow veterans a couple mornings a week at the St. Peter American Legion post. He said his leg isn’t acutely sore, but it still aches. VA doctors told him they didn’t want to risk surgery to remove the shrapnel because it was too close to his sciatic nerve.
In 2005, doctors at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis agreed that his leg injury probably happened in combat. “The scar in the left thigh is at least as likely as not (50/50 probability) caused by or a result of a combat fragment wound,” they wrote in one report. “Reasonable doubt has been resolved in your favor,” they wrote in another.
Meyer first applied for a Purple Heart in 2020. The Army denied him, saying he needed more documentation.
So U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar ‘s staff then helped him get documents from the National Archives and made numerous follow-up inquiries. But even with the additional evidence, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records turned him down. Klobuchar said this week that she’s not giving up.
“Earl Meyer put his life on the line in defense of our freedoms, and we will continue to do all we can to further the work to rightfully honor his service,” the Minnesota Democrat said in a statement.
In its most recent rejection letter, the board said he must have “substantiating evidence to verify that he was injured, the wound was the result of hostile action, the wound must have required treatment by medical personnel and the medical treatment must have been made a matter of official record.”
The board conceded that “some evidence available for review indicates a possible injury,” but that “based on the preponderance of the evidence available for review, the Board determined the evidence presented insufficient to warrant a recommendation for relief.”
Meyer’s attorney, Alan Anderson, wrote in the lawsuit that review boards have awarded Purple Hearts under similar circumstances — sometimes under court order. He said the board noted the problems of relying solely on medical records when it approved a Purple Heart in a separate 2015 case.
“Under wartime conditions, wounds requiring medical treatment by a medical officer will not always receive such treatment, and, even if a Soldier requiring such treatment receives it, there will be cases where the treatment is not made a matter of official record,” the board said in that case. “In such cases, other sources, including credible statements from colleagues, may be useful in establishing the circumstances in which a Soldier was wounded.”
Karnowski reported from Minneapolis; Perez Winder reported from New Buffalo, Michigan.