DIXON – Leonard “Len” Saunders left the Army after the Vietnam War without his medals of honor, and they’ve been on his mind for the past 43 years.
Monday, the 63-year-old Polo man finally was presented with a Purple Heart and the Army Commendation with Valor for his acts of bravery and heroism.
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Manteno, who is an Iraq War veteran, presented the medals to Saunders, in front of about 20 of his family and friends.
“This means a lot to me,” he said after the presentation, passing up the opportunity to speak during it.
“I happen to be working with a friend of mine [John Croft] over in Leaf River, and I told him about it, and he asked if I minded if he gave someone a call. I wasn’t real into it at first, but he insisted.”
A little more than a month later, a watery-eyed Saunders accepted his medals at the American Legion in Dixon.
The private first class was “walking point” in Cambodia when he heard some men crossing a road nearby and notified his troop to get down. They were prepared enough to remain safe against the enemy, killing three of them.
For that he earned the Army Commendation with Valor, given to those who display heroism.
He also was wounded by shrapnel, for which he earned the Purple Heart.
When the U.S. pulled soldiers from the Vietnam War, he was just 21, stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, with his wife Deborah and infant son.
“I figured I’d get the medals when I got out. I got out of there, and they were supposed to send them, and never did.”
Drafted right after he was married, he served 11 months.
Saunders and the others who served in Vietnam didn’t get the respect they deserved when they came home, Kinzinger said Monday.
The congressman said he will always remember the crowd of about 300 people in Baltimore when he returned from Iraq.
“There was no applause for those who returned from the Vietnam era,” Kinzinger said during the presentation. “America didn’t appreciate their service at that time. It was those who served in Vietnam that made this country appreciate those who are serving today.
“For that, and going above and beyond what was asked of you, I award you these two medals.”
Croft said he contacted the U.S. government because he did not think it was right for Saunders to go without his medals.
“All the thanks goes to Len Saunders and all the people who risked their lives when their country asked them to,” Croft said in a phone interview with Sauk Valley Media.
“He came back, like some others, they came back in very short order. They were just sent home, ‘Here’s your discharge papers, we’ll send you your medals.’”
Kinzinger encouraged others with veteran, Social Security or Medicare issues to reach out to his office.
“That’s what our office is for, to help people,” Kinzinger said. “This was a huge honor ... Len is a great guy and he served his country. He deserved this day.”