Half-century after battle in Vietnam, Utahn finally gains Purple Heart recognition

(Photo courtesy of Alyson Heyrend) Douglas W. Evans, left, is presented a Purple Heart by Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, at a ceremony July 13, 2020, at McAdams' office in West Jordan. Evans was in the U.S. Army in Vietnam on Oct. 15, 1966, when soldiers in his squad detonated mines that wounded him and killed another man.

When a soldier receives a Purple Heart, there’s an important item that goes with the medal — a certificate.

Without it, a Purple Heart recipient — like Utahn Douglas W. Evans — can’t show the citation is authentic.

“I always had the Purple Heart,” Evans said Monday, “but I had no orders to prove it was legal.”

It took Evans almost 54 years, but he received his documentation and a new Purple Heart in a ceremony Monday at the West Jordan office of Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah.

On Oct. 15, 1966, Pfc. Evans, from Bountiful, was serving in Company D, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam.

Evans, in a telephone interview after Monday’s ceremony, said a village chief told the platoon leader about an L-shaped trench up the road that would make a prime spot to mount an ambush against the North Vietnamese. Evans’ squad was sent to the trench to prepare for an assault.

It was a “pitch black” night, Evans recalled. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”

The North Vietnamese had placed mines in the trench. A soldier tripped one, and the blast threw Evans 30 feet. He suffered shrapnel wounds to his ear, lip, rib cage and lung.

Another soldier tried to come to his aid but ended up setting off another mine and died. Other personnel suffered injuries in the explosions.

Eventually, Evans said, the U.S. fighters could hear the enemy looking for them in the brush. Evans said he put a grenade in his right hand and pulled the pin. Then he realized that arm and hand were too injured to throw it, so he carefully shifted the ordnance in his left before tossing it.

The North Vietnamese never found the Americans, Evans said, and he was evacuated to a field hospital.

While he was receiving treatment, husband and wife entertainers Roy Rogers and Dale Evans visited the hospital with a general. When the wife heard someone with her surname was a patient, she wanted to see him.

The general, acting as the famous couple’s guide, pinned Evans’ Purple Heart to his pillow. But there were no documents with it, the Utah veteran explained, and by the time Evans tried to have his citation processed, witnesses were dead or transferred.

Lots of wounded vets have to petition for their actual Purple Hearts. Evans is one of the few who received the medal but no papers. That sometimes exacerbated the complications. He would try telling Army personnel he already had the medal, and they often wouldn’t believe his story.

Evans went on to serve 32 years in the Army and retire as a master sergeant, but he didn’t wear his Purple Heart on his uniform for fear of being charged with a federal crime reserved for medal imposters. He also didn’t apply for special Purple Heart license plates and other benefits to which he was entitled.

“Fifty-four years I’ve been fighting trying to get the documents,” he said.

Evans, who now lives in West Jordan, said he might have given up if his wife hadn’t kept pushing him. A few months ago, he called McAdams’ office.

McAdams said his staff reached out to the Army secretary.

“We were persistent,” he said Monday, “and kept pushing, and somebody went down and found hospital records.”

(Photo courtesy of Alyson Heyrend)  A Purple Heart is pinned on Douglas W. Evans' left lapel during a ceremony July 13, 2020, at the West Jordan Offices of Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah. Evans received one Purple Heart while in a hospital in Vietnam in 1966, but he did not receive the certificates documenting the medal's authenticity.

McAdams pinned a new medal on Evans’ left lapel and gave him a certificate. Evans said he still has the medal he received in the hospital.

“It was just really nice to get the accolades I fought so long for,” Evans said.

He already has another reason to talk to his congressman. Evans said he is considered 40% disabled, and since he’s not more than half disabled, under federal rules, his disability pay is subtracted from his Army retirement income.

“So I’m paying for my own disability,” Evans said.

McAdams said he would examine that issue, too.

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