Hundreds of Niagara County's Purple Heart recipients were honored on Wednesday evening at a special ceremony in recognition of Purple Heart Day.
Guests from across the county packed into North Tonawanda's Raymond Klimek Veteran's Park for a ceremony to honor those who had earned the prestigious medal. The event was organized by Niagara County to recognize the service of area veterans who were wounded in combat.
"To see all of these Purple Heart recipients here tonight, with their families, all in once place at the same time is such a gratifying experience," said North Tonawanda Mayor Art Pappas. "You individuals that are recipients of the Purple Heart Award, you saved this country. In fact, you probably saved the world."
The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President to members of the military who are wounded in combat, or to a soldier's next-of-kin if they are killed in combat. It is the oldest military award still distributed today, and was originally established by George Washington.
The ceremony began with a performance from the American Legion Band, which was followed up with a flyover by the Whiskey 7 C-47 transport plane, which was part of the airborne invasion of Normandy on D-Day.
The names of roughly 300 Purple Heart recipients, both living and deceased, were read aloud during the ceremony. A bell was rung for each solider who was killed in action. Living recipients who were able to attend the ceremony were each presented with a pin and commemorative coin.
County Legislator Rich Andres, a history teacher at North Tonawanda High School, said that he teaches his students about the cost of war, of which he said the Purple Heart is a reminder.
"I remind students of those men and women, very much like themselves, who had their whole lives ahead of them and they found themselves thrust on the front lines of conflicts all over the world," Andres said. "(I remind them of) the sacrifices they made for the benefit of all of us...to inherit a world made safe for freedom through the grit and determination of the American soldier."
The event closed out with a presentation of an American flag to the family of Frank J. Gaffney, a native of Lockport who enlisted in the U.S. Army in Niagara Falls during World War I.
Gaffney was awarded not only the Purple Heart, but also the Medal of Honor for his actions in a battle near Ronssoy, France, where he was able to capture an enemy machine gun and take 80 prisoners. A few weeks later he was wounded, which forced doctors to amputate his left arm.
"Every combat veteran endures the scars of war," Andres said. "There are many that did not receive the Purple Heart that probably should have. But on this day, remember the sacrifice of the American soldier. The son or daughter, husband, wife, mother, father, that served their country bravely and paid a dear price – blood – for our freedom."