Pursuit of the Purple Heart: Army vet to get honor 60 years after battle

William “Ron” Arpino was just 20 years old when he served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

U.S. Army veteran William “Ron” Arpino, 82, has spent his life putting others first.

As a truck driver, he worked late-night hours at multiple jobs to support his four children.

As a sergeant during the Korean War, he was wounded in battle because he refused to leave one of his troops behind.

And in 1953, when he was offered a Purple Heart for his valor, Arpino turned it down because he didn’t want to upset his mother.

“At that time, if it got back to your parents that you were awarded the Purple Heart, it was the general understanding that there was a possibility your son was killed at war,” Arpino’s daughter Lu Cugini said Friday in an interview. “And he didn’t want to cause his mother that kind of worry.”

On Monday, Arpino, who lived most of his life in Northeast Philadelphia, will finally receive the recognition he turned down more than 60 years ago when he is presented with a Purple Heart medal during a pinning ceremony in the auditorium of Holy Redeemer Hospital.

‘Determination to resist the enemy’

Arpino was just 20 years old on July 15, 1953, when his company was assigned to defend an outpost in the area of Pau-gol, Korea.

After three hours of bombardment, enemy forces advanced, isolating Arpino’s squad from the rest of the platoon, according to military documents provided by the hospice and his family.

“Nevertheless, the small group, under Sergeant Arpino’s direction, repulsed the enemy for over ten hours,” reads a U.S. Army order dated Nov. 30, 1953. “During this time, Sergeant Arpino, with little regard for his personal safety, exposed himself to hostile fire to rescue one of his wounded men.”

Arpino then led the squad in a counterattack.

“At some point, they ran out of ammunition,” Cugini said, recalling stories her father has told her of the battle. “There were grenades being thrown back and forth, but my father continued to protect that soldier.”

One of the grenades launched Arpino into the air, and he landed on his head, Cugini said.

Still, a wounded Arpino managed to lead his platoon in fighting off the enemy and defending the outpost.

Though Arpino declined the Purple Heart after the battle, he did accept a Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration for valor.

“Sergeant Arpino’s inspiring example of determination to resist the enemy, personal gallantry, and devotion to duty reflect the highest credit upon himself and the United States Army,” the 1953 order announcing the award reads.

This July, Arpino entered hospice care at Holy Redeemer in Meadowbrook, Pa.

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer decades ago, but within the past two years, his family received word that the disease had metastasized, spreading to his bones and lungs.

“When we explained to my dad that we weren’t going to fight the cancer anymore, that we were going to go into hospice, he was kind of giving up,” Cugini said. “He asked me what was happening: ‘Do I just have to lay here and wait to die?’”

In pursuit of the medal he’d forgone

Staffers at Holy Redeemer quickly got to know the gregarious 82-year-old, and soon realized how much the medal he’d forgone meant to him.

“When someone is facing the end of their life, one of the things we do is a life review,” Holy Redeemer volunteer coordinator Jean Francis said. “This was one of the things that was really bothering Ron.”

Francis and other hospice staffers decided to bring Arpino a measure of closure by pursuing the long-overdue honor.

“As a family, we had thought about it all these years and, quite frankly, we never knew how to get the ball rolling,” Cugini said. “We needed somebody to sort of tell us how to do that. This really started quite by accident, and I’m kind of speechless that we’re here now.”

That’s not to say there weren’t obstacles: The Department of Veterans Affairs has strict rules when it comes to issuing Purple Hearts. Recipients must provide proof that their injuries were received in action against an enemy and were treated by a medical officer, Francis said.

“I truly thought it would be a little bit easier – until I looked at the discharge papers,” she said.

While they list the Silver Star, Arpino’s papers make no mention the Purple Heart proffer, and they do not include documentation of his injuries.

That information would have to be corroborated by Arpino’s military medical records, which were once stored at the National Personnel Record Center in St. Louis, Mo.

A portion of the facility was decimated by fire in 1973, leading the government to declare some 16 million personnel files lost.

Though Holy Redeemer staff filed a petition with the VA to recover the missing records, it soon became clear Arpino would not be able to wait for the process to take its course, Francis said.

‘Down the road, his family will have proof’

So, with the help of the VFW Post 3258 in Chalfont, hospice workers arranged for a private company to deliver a replica medal.

“Ron knows it’s a replica of a Purple Heart but that down the road, his family will have proof of his wounded status and that he is, in fact, a hero,” Francis said.

“His daughters have grown up hearing this story for decades. We’re thrilled to be a part of it and to have him receive the replica until the process is finalized and we get the real thing.”

As many as 50 people are expected to attend Monday’s ceremony, among them Arpino’s four children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren; members of his extended family, representatives of the Chalfont VFW post and Holy Redeemer hospice staffers.

Father Timothy Judge, of Holy Redeemer Pastoral Care, will lead the proceedings. The facility’s catering company will furnish a sheet cake marked with the U.S. Army insignia.

Cugini said her father is floored by the outpouring of support.

“When this all started, he looked at me and said, ‘I can’t believe this is happening. I never thought I would get this medal,’” she said. “He’s taken care of everyone else in his lifetime – be it his parents, his children, his spouses – and I think maybe this is a recognition, now, that he’s being taken care of.”

The ceremony has, for her, transformed what would ordinarily be a time of mourning into a celebration.

“It feels more like a beginning than an end,” she said. “I guess it’s really important to Dad that now, 60 years later – he’s waited a very long time for this – he has an award that he turned down decades ago, that he turned down for the love of his mother.”