WANTAGH, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — A World War II veteran finally has the Purple Heart that he earned in a fierce and legendary battle against the Germans.
Leonard Stern, 88, of Wantagh, Long Island said he’s just glad to have lived to see this day.
As CBS2’s Jessica Schneider reported, Stern was surprised by all of the attention that he’s been getting.
The U.S. Army finally granted him a Purple Heart for nearly being killed 70-years ago at the Battle of the Bulge.
Fighting in bitter winter cold, then 18-year-old Stern and his fellow soldiers barely held off a last-ditch effort by the German army to stop the U.S. led invasion.
“The casualty rate was so high when my dad got to the front lines, the sergeant told him, ‘I don’t want to know your name, you’ll probably be dead by the end of the week,’ but my father, he survived the odds,” Leonard’s son David said.
He survived, but not without being severely injured by a mortar blast that killed the soldier next to him.
“They were falling left and right, I was wondering when it would be my turn, but I was lucky,” he said.
Jubilant family members said a bit of luck followed Stern when he was sent to a hospital near his brother, also a WWII veteran.
“It just so happens they sent him to my base. I had been in England for two years,” Eugene Esterkin said.
For decades, family members fought to find the medical records proving he’d been wounded in battle. They were finally tracked down by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s staff.
“His records were destroyed in the 70s. We were able to track them down and then get him his medal that he earned,” Sen. Gillibrand said.
Leonard said he is happiest to share the medal with his grandchildren as proof that if you set your mind to a goal it can be achieved.
“I love this award, it’s like I finished college,” Stern said.
Stern said his hard-earned medal is also in memory of the friends he made and lost in those frozen foxholes many years ago.
Stern’s family said because of his case the military now recognizes traumatic head injuries in awarding the Purple Heart.
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