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Purple Heart awarded after 62 years

Senior Airman Crystal Garza proudly pins the Purple Heart on her grandfather, Mr. Hilario Riojas, during the official Purple Heart Ceremony in his honor November 26.

Senior Airman Crystal Garza proudly pins the Purple Heart on her grandfather, Mr. Hilario Riojas, during the official Purple Heart Ceremony in his honor November 26.

26 Nov 2008 -- Mr. Hilario L. Riojas was in disbelief when he finally received the Purple Heart that he earned in battle over sixty-two years ago when he sustained a shrapnel injury and was one of only eight men out of fifty to survive.

The 552nd Maintenance Operations Squadron officially presented the award to Mr. Riojas November 26, in an emotional Purple Heart Ceremony at the Tinker Chapel Reception Hall.

Mr. Riojas was drafted into the Air Force in 1942 to be an Air Gunner. However, due to his poor eyesight, he was sent to Fort Dix, N.J. to work as a chef. He later volunteered to serve in the infantry and in January 1945, he was reassigned to Germany. Later that year, Mr. Riojas was injured in an attack during the five-week battle of the Rhineland Campaign, he said.

"We were crossing a river at three o'clock in the morning and we came under attack," Mr. Riojas said. "Only five of us survived and we turned to go back to the resting area to wait for reinforcements. While walking back, we were attacked again and our lieutenant was hit and wounded. I picked him up and carried him to the medics and was hit by shrapnel in the process."

Sixty-two years later, after the family had pursued presentation of the award for four years, Mr. Riojas' actions were finally recognized by the Board of Correction of Military Records, when they confirmed that he did, indeed, deserve the Purple Heart for his military service.

However, when Mr. Riojas received his Purple Heart in the mail, his granddaughter, Senior Airman Crystal R. Garza, 552 MOS, was not satisfied.

"He is the most amazing man I have grown to know and is a true American," said Airman Garza, who felt he deserved a more formal presentation of the award.

Airman Garza began talking to her fellow Airmen and squadron leadership, and before she knew it, there was a formal ceremony planned in his honor, she said.

"When I told my grandfather about the ceremony he was crying and said 'they're doing this for me?' He couldn't believe that people who didn't even know him were honoring him for something he did 62 years ago," said Airman Garza.

During the ceremony, Airman Garza was allowed the honor of pinning the Purple Heart on her grandfather, even though it is an award traditionally presented by an officer.

"I joined the Air Force to serve my country like my grandfather did," said Airman Garza. "My grandfather has inspired me to be a better person in life and to never take anything for granted."

Mr. Riojas was visibly touched by the ceremony and was "very, very happy" to finally receive the award. His words to today's Airmen: "Believe in GOD, stay strong and keep on fighting. We have a wonderful country and we need to keep on fighting for it."