Vickroy: Purple Heart recipients share stories of their wars
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy November 9, 2012 7:46PM
Danielle Green-Byrd, who was injured while serving in Iraq, at the Orland Park Vet Center. She was a star basketball player for Notre Dame and now wears a prosthetic left lower-arm and hand after being injured. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:06AM
“All gave some — some gave all.”
The Purple Heart is considered the nation’s oldest military medal of honor. It was created in 1782 by Gen. George Washington as a means of honoring those who fought bravely and gave dearly for their country.
Back then, it was customary in Europe that only high-ranking officers who had achieved victory were honored. Washington believed that common U.S. soldiers who were injured or killed in the line of duty deserved the same glory.
The first soldiers to receive the medal, originally called “the badge of military merit,” were three sergeants who were injured during the Revolutionary War. Since then, an estimated 1.7 million Americans have been issued a Purple Heart.
On this Veterans Day, we honor all by sharing the stories of three of them.
Danielle Green-Byrd was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, Bill Conner was blasted with shrapnel in Vietnam. Frank Bilo had a trench implode on him during the Korean War.
All three soldiers are bonded by their membership in the Purple Heart club. It’s not something any soldier aspires to, but it is an honor each holds dear.
At age 7, Danielle Green-Byrd made up her mind to do two things in life: attend the University of Notre Dame and serve in the military.
“My mom was a substance abuser,” said Green-Byrd, who grew up in Chicago’s inner-city and now lives on the South Side.
There was no money, and most laughed at her lofty dreams.
“Indirectly,” she said, “my mom’s problems inspired me to work hard at school, to get a ticket out.”
In 1995, she headed off to her dream school in South Bend, Ind., on basketball and academic scholarships. While there, she averaged 9.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. She also earned a degree in psychology.
After graduation in 1999, she landed a teaching job for the Chicago International Charter School.
In 2002, at age 25, she made a decision to act on her other dream. She’d been a member of Reserve Officers Training Corps at Roosevelt High School and had devoted much of her time in college to researching the various military branches. Finally, she decided to enlist in the U.S. Army.
She was deployed to Iraq in January, 2004. Two months into her deployment, she returned to Chicago to marry Willie Byrd.
She had been back in Iraq for only seven weeks when her world was turned upside down.
She recalled that May 25 was an especially steamy day in Baghdad.
“I had this eerie feeling all day,” she said. “It was 115 degrees and my stomach was cramping.”
After a long morning of riot training, she and her comrades figured they were done for the day. But that afternoon, they were sent on a mission to check out a local police station.
They’d gone on the same mission many times before. Each time they arrived at the station, they had been greeted by children and local police. On this day, however, the place was abandoned but for the prisoners, she said.
“It was very suspicious, but as an E4, I just did as I was told,” she said.
The soldiers took turns doing surveillance duty on the roof. As she walked near the front of the building, two rocket grenades exploded nearby. She grabbed her M4 rifle and took cover.
“I was in a kneeling position, about to turn the lever from safety to fire, when something hit me,” she said.
Her ears ringing, her body numb, she remembers being really angry.
“Then the numbness wore off,” she said. The pain was unbearable. Her left arm below the elbow was blown off. Most of the muscle in her upper arm was gone, too. Her left leg was busted open.
“I remember waiting to die, praying to God, saying, ‘I’m only 27 years old, please give me the opportunity to live to tell my story,’ ” she said.
Suddenly, her sergeant appeared over her.
“I still remember his greenish-blue eyes growing large as he looked at me,” she said. Another sergeant tied a tourniquet around her upper arm. The men carried her back down the stairs of the station.
When she got to the bottom, there were police officers standing there.
“I remember thinking, ‘This was a total setup,’ ” she said.
She was loaded onto a helicopter.
“Last thing I remember, they were cutting off my uniform as we were flying over the Tiber River to the green zone,” she said. “When I woke up I thought I was in heaven because I was all in white and there were all these people standing around me.”
Then she realized she was in a hospital, and that her arm was missing.
Right then and there, her command sergeant presented her with the Purple Heart.
Her master sergeant told her that two sergeants in her unit defied orders and went in search of the missing limb. They found it under 7 inches of sand and retrieved her wedding rings.
After recovering for eight months at Walter Reed Hospital, she was medically discharged in December 2004.
She since has earned two master’s degrees, worked for a time as a high school counselor and now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs in an Orland Park office as a readjustment counselor for soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She has also learned a new sport: golf.
“I love it. It allows me to feel whole and to compete against able-bodied people,” she said.
Sadly, her husband died last year from pneumonia and sepsis.
It took Green-Byrd seven years to join a local chapter of the Purple Hearts. Now she’s a regular at the monthly meetings in Oak Lawn.
“The Purple Heart symbolizes courage and sacrifice,” she said. “It is not something you want but it is definitely one of the highest honors.”
Still, she added, “I would give anything to have my left arm back. No amount of medals can replace that.”
Bill Conner’s unit was on high alert the day he got hit. It was July 1967, and the soldiers from the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division were just three miles from the Cambodian border, on Black Virgin Mountain.
Their mission was to break Viet Cong supply runs.
The night before he was hit, his unit was “probed,” which meant the enemy had tripped the flares the Americans had set up around the perimeter of their location.
“They knew where we were,” Conner said.
A gunner, Conner knew they were targeting him. He was standing in his foxhole, both hands on a shoulder-high berm, when a mortar round missed by about 10 inches. Several men were hit with shrapnel, Conner included.
“I didn’t know I was injured at first; there were bleeding guys all around me,” he said. An officer sent him to fetch a medic.
The medic was too scared to follow the Army infantryman back to his position, which still was under fire. Finally, another officer’s gun to his head, the medic relented and followed Conner back to the injured comrades.
When he’d finished treating the others, the medic said to Conner, “Look, you’re bleeding.”
Conner had taken shrapnel to both hands.
“I was tagged and sent for treatment,” he said.
They removed the metal, sewed him up, and a few days later, sent him back to the front lines.
“I could still fire a gun,” he said.
His injuries, which earned him the Purple Heart, were painful but nothing compared with the emotional pain of later having to identify the body of a buddy.
To this day, Conner, 63, struggles with post-traumatic stress.
“It was just chaos over there,” said Conner, now commander of Bremen VFW Post 2791 in Tinley Park. “It was jungle warfare. You never saw the enemy, you had to look for the flash of their guns.”
A Purple Heart is not something anybody wants, he said. But it is nice to be recognized for shedding blood for your country.
Conner, who grew up in Chicago’s Roseland community, moved to Tinley in 1982. He is also a recipient of the Air Medal.
Conner’s son, Sean, also is a Purple Heart recipient. Sean Conner, still serving in the Army, was injured in Iraq when a mortar round landed 10 feet from him and sprayed his backside and leg with shrapnel. He is stationed at Fort Polk, La., with plans to retire next year.
The war in Korea was winding down when Frank Bilo suffered his injury.
“We were near Pork Chop Hill,” he said. The Army soldiers were in a bunker below the crest of a hill, “under furious attack,” he said.
Bilo, a forward observer, was the ”eyes” of the unit — the person in charge of calling in weapons and directing fire. That also meant he was a target of the North Koreans.
“They had jammed our radar and knocked out our communication lines,” he said. “We were helpless.”
Determined to re-establish radio lines, Bilo grabbed a doughnut of wire and ran down the mountain through trenches, unrolling wire as he went.
He was making his way through a trench when a shell exploded near his head, blasting dirt and debris on top of him.
Nearly buried alive, Bilo was knocked out. Medics later loaded him onto a truck and brought him to a field hospital, where a concussion was diagnosed.
Bilo was shipped to Osaka, Japan, where he recovered for 30 days. He suffered ringing in his ears for a long time after.
By the time he was shipped back to his outfit, at the rank of staff sergeant, the war was over.
During his hospitalization, he was invited to a special meeting to receive his Purple Heart.
“I didn’t go,” he said. “Because all around me were guys with missing limbs, guys much worse off than me.”
Years later, Bilo sent for the medal.
Bilo grew up in Chicago’s Bridgeport community. He attended Tilden Tech and was apprenticing to be a pressman when he was drafted at 19.
After the war, he returned to the Chicago area, worked as a pressman for the Chicago Sun-Times and as a salesman for Volkswagen.
He and his wife, Angie, live in Burbank. He has three sons and several grandchildren.
His 9-year-old grandson, Luke, is so enthralled with the medal that he asked his grandmother if she could order one for him, too.
In May 2011, Bilo and his wife were invited back to South Korea on a veterans revisit excursion.
“It was fantastic, very interesting,” he said. About 125 vets spent five days touring various points of interest, including Panmunjom, where the armistice was signed.
“I had the honor of putting a wreath on the grave of a fallen soldier,” he said.