ROCK FALLS – Air Force veteran Frank Ochoa Jr. woke up early Saturday morning knowing that a yearlong mission would soon be accomplished.
Today was the day he would take his father, Frank Ochoa Sr., 86, of South Holland, to Rock Island to claim some honors that were long overdue. Frank Jr., of Rock Falls, and a few other family members picked up the elder Ochoa in the south suburbs bright and early Saturday, but kept their destination a surprise until they got there.
"Dad's not an early riser, and we left at 7 a.m.," Frank Jr. said with a laugh. "He kept asking where we were going, but we just kept telling him we going on a little road trip."
Army vet Frank Sr., after shaking off any ill effects of the early departure time, would be in for one of the biggest surprises of his life. He would be one of two Korean War veterans to receive replacement medals earned during their tours of duty.
Frank Sr. received two of the four medals he earned during his 18 months with a service company in Korea – and earned them he did.
"We ran supplies to the front lines, and the North Koreans were always taking potshots at us," Frank Sr. said. "You just got used to it after a while."
Frank Sr. was to receive four medals after the war: the National Defense Service Medal; Korean Service Medal and Bronze Star Attachment; United Nations Service Medal; and the Korean War Service Medal. He received only two of the four when he came home, and the others never came.
"I knew they were missing all along, but I just never bothered to do anything about it," Frank Sr. said.
Frank Jr., who was in the Air Force, active and reserves, for more than a quarter-century, served in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Afghanistan. He knew it can take some time to get military awards, but 61 years?
"A couple years ago, my father mentioned he was supposed to get two more medals of service," Frank Jr. said. "If you don't keep in touch with your unit, they lose touch with you."
So about a year ago, he contacted Bustos for help, and received the good news on Wednesday.
The Ochoa family arrived at the congresswoman's Rock Island office for the 10:30 a.m. presentation ceremony. The other veteran honored at the event was Edward Welvaert of Moline, who received five medals.
Frank Sr. said he was still so surprised when he met Bustos, it was difficult for him to find the words to express his feelings.
"I can't believe they kept it secret to the very end," he said. "I was proud to meet the congresswoman, and when she introduced herself, I told her I was just finding out about all this."
While the Korean vet had tried to tell himself that the medals weren't that big of a deal, he discovered a different truth while sharing that special moment Saturday with his family and a few close friends.
"I really felt proud, and realized that it was nice to have something that had been a missing piece in my life all these years," Frank Sr. said.
Frank Jr. says his father is still in good health and he tries to keep him busy. The next "road trip" could be to the nation's capital.
"I've been trying to get dad to go on the Chicago Honor Flight," Frank Jr. said. "They are still doing the WWII vets there, so we're trying to go on the Quad Cities or Peoria trips."
That trip probably won't be a surprise, which will give the younger Ochoa time to break the news that the departure time for that one is likely to be even earlier.