Meet The Group Of Veterans Campaigning For Every City In Broward To Honor Purple Heart Recipients

Oct 9, 2018

In the military, the Purple Heart medal is awarded to members of the armed forces injured in enemy combat. It's a sign of bravery and gratitude that can trace back its origins all the way to 1782, with General George Washington. 

Over the years, there have been different civilian initiatives to honor Purple Heart recipients. In the 90s, for example, some nature trails became designated as "Purple Heart Trails" so hikers could commemorate soldiers while they explored across the country. 

That idea spread. Now there are Purple Heart-designated cities, counties, and even whole states. 

Lighthouse Point is Broward County's latest city to write up a proclamation to remember recipients of the medal - and recently Broward County designated itself a Purple Heart County as well.

One local group of veterans led the charge to make that happen and they say they won't stop until they get the chance to talk to every municipality in the county about what it really means to be Purple Heart-designated.

Lewis Colon started the effort with Broward County cities and towns, nearly three years ago.  And now, he's joined forces with other interested veterans from the American Legion Post 142 in Pompano Beach. 

Colon didn't start the campaign because he has his own Purple Heart medal - he doesn't. Neither does his grandfather, who also served in the military. But his grandfather is why he feels so strongly about making sure veterans don’t ever feel forgotten.

Colon found his military discharge paperwork from 1919: "We have 100 years serving in the military. I got my grandfather's honorable discharge, and I felt I owed it to them," Colon said.

Seventeen members of his family have served in the military. Colon himself was an E4 radioman for the U.S. Navy in the 1970s.

"It's just a way of honoring and remembering the people that did, you know, so much for us," he said. 

Lewis Colon keeps all of the paperwork for cities that he visits, in one big manilla folder. So far, he's helped 18 municipalities pass Purple Heart proclamations.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN

Now Colon works in Davie's public works department and lives in Coral Springs. 

Becoming a Purple Heart City or entity doesn’t cost any money. Colon said the whole point is just to take the time for a local government to recognize Purple Heart recipients, and thank them.

"The mayor and the council members come to an agreement - they do either a resolution or a proclamation, and read it at a commission meeting," said Colon. 

So far, he’s gotten 18 of Broward's cities and towns to sign on.

In addition to presenting to cities about the Purple Heart medal, Colon has also been pushing for Broward to become a Purple Heart-designated County. 

And on Aug. 14, he got his wish:

County Commissioner Chip LaMarca read out Broward's proclamation, which read:

"Now, therefore, be it proclaimed by the board of county commissioners of Broward County - the board hereby designates Broward County as a Purple Heart County." 

LaMarca was approached with the idea directly by veterans from American Legion Post 142. 

"There's nothing that we could financially, or monetarily, materialistically do to let a veteran know how much we appreciate them more than us actually physically thanking them, walking up to them and shaking their hand," LaMarca said. 

Colon saw that group of Purple Heart recipients' success with the campaign and joined them. He feels particularly strongly that veterans from the Vietnam War have never gotten the respect they deserve. 

If anyone understands that feeling, it's Jerry Toomey.   

Veteran Jerry Toomey brings his Purple Heart hat with him when he visits and volunteers at his American Legion Post 142.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN

"Being a Vietnam veteran, people really didn't welcome us home. We were called 'baby killers', we were spat at going through airports," Toomey said. 

He was shot twice while he was in the Army, as a Cavalryman during the war.

Toomey barely even remembers getting his first of two Purple Heart medals. But he said the medals mean more to him now than when he was 20 years old anyway. 

"A lot of people get things for doing a good job," he said. "But a Purple Heart is different because you have to have been wounded in combat - by the enemy. As I've gotten older I've come to appreciate it much more." 

Colon, Toomey and other Purple Heart recipients from the Post helped get the City of Lighthouse Point to become a Purple Heart City in August, after they worked with a local Eagle Scout to build a memorial shrine behind St. Paul of the Apostles Catholic Church.

At the shrine, there's a brick path and a circle of benches that commemorates the different branches of the military. Flags stand tall in the middle.

Read More: Veterans With No Family Are Remembered

On the ground, bricks are engraved with names of veterans. But, Toomey said more than just military and Purple Heart heroes can be honored here. 

On the left side of the circle, in the ground, are 17 extra engraved bricks. They have the names of the victims from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on them with the words, "hero" inscribed. 

"Somewhere down here, I got a brick with my name on it," Toomey said. 

The bricks are meant to honor veterans both dead, and living.

Even though the group has already managed to convince Broward County to become a Purple Heart County - there are still 13 more cities and towns to go. 

"If I can get all of the cities, that would be great," Colon said. "And if I can do more, that would be even better."