Vinnie Ortizio is proud to be a veteran of the U.S. Army, having served his country in World War II. The 79-year-old retired long-time Weehawken resident spends a lot of his time these days doing veteran-related activities, like writing Christmas cards to the members of the Armed Forces or speaking to the youngsters of the town about his wartime experiences.
But there was something that always bothered Ortizio. While other veterans proudly display the medals of honor they received for their service in the war at various veteran functions like parades and ceremonies, Ortizio never had that chance.
“I never received the medals I was supposed to receive,” Ortizio said. “When I was discharged, I didn’t even think about medals. I just wanted to get home. I got a few ribbons when I left, but that was it.”
Ortizio enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942 and received his discharge four years later as a technical sergeant. He spent 15 months in combat in Europe, serving the Army in Germany, Czechoslovakia, France, Scotland and Belgium. He fought in the now-famous “Battle of the Bulge.”
“I did the whole works,” Ortizio laughed.
After the war, Ortizio returned to his home on Monroe Street in Hoboken, three houses down from Hoboken’s most famous native, Frank Sinatra, and figured he would just eventually receive his series of service medals. But they never came.
“I thought that they would just mail them to me,” Ortizio said.
About six years ago, Ortizio read an article that said he could write to the U.S. Veterans Administration and request the medals he never received.
“I saw the article and thought I could give it a try,” Ortizio said.
So Ortizio wrote to the Veterans Administration. But again, he heard nothing.
“I tried a few times over the last five or six years, but I never received even a letter,” Ortizio said. “The reason why I was so intent on getting the medals is that my brother-in-law never got his medals. Then, he passed away. I wanted to see my medals while I still could enjoy them.”
Ortizio did receive one medal, from the state of New Jersey, as part of its Distinguished Service Medal program honoring veterans of past wars. Ortizio received his New Jersey Distinguished Medal last July, with four other Weehawken residents.
But he still hasn’t received other deserved medals, the ones he earned while in combat.
However, one day last month, to Ortizio’s surprise, he received a letter from the Veterans Administration. In the envelope, Ortizio found his six medals: the Good Conduct Medal, the Victorious Unit Emblem, the American Campaign Medal, the European-African-Middle East Campaign Medal, the Marksman Badge (Machine Gun) and finally, the World War II Victory Medal.
It had been nearly 55 years after receiving his discharge papers.
“I was absolutely shocked when I received it,” Ortizio said. “I never expected them to come. I won’t say that I gave up hope, but I honestly didn’t know what to think.”
Needless to say, it didn’t take long for Ortizio to proudly display the medals. He has already placed them inside a protective case, and framed them for everyone to see.
“It really gave me a piece of mind that I got them,” said Ortizio, who spends a lot of his time at the Weehawken Senior Citizen Nutritional Center on Highwood Avenue. “I’ve met a lot of other GI’s who really didn’t seem to care about their medals. But not me. You better believe it was really important for me. It’s an honor.”
Ortizio was also pleased to receive a letter of recognition from the U.S. House of Representatives and another from the Secretary of Defense.
“I guess they didn’t forget about me,” Ortizio said. “I think it’s important for other people who don’t realize what we had to go through to get the medals. It meant a lot to all of us who served in the war. I’m proud to let anyone know what I did.”
And now, he has the medals to prove it – a month before his 79th birthday.
“An early birthday present for sure,” Ortizio said.