When the Army colonel pinned the three medals on Cecil Wade’s vest, the hundreds of airmen and civilians who packed a theater at Scott Air Force Base erupted into thunderous applause. And the applause erupted again when Wade, choking back tears, ended a brief speech thanking all who showed up on his special day Friday.
“God bless all of us, and God bless the United States of America,” said Wade, 68, who was awarded the Army Commendation Medal, a Purple Heart and second Battle Star for his actions in February 1968 repelling a North Vietnamese Army unit in South Vietnam.
“This is quite a day for me,” said Wade, of East Alton, who retired a few years ago from the banking and insurance industries. “I got to say this, though. I polished my boots today. I wasn’t going to stand in front of a colonel without polishing my boots.”
Wade, who volunteered as a rifleman with the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division, acknowledged going through rough times after leaving the Army in the late 1960s and coming home to Illinois. Standing on the auditorium in the Scott theater, however, and feeling the support from the throng of troops, veterans and other civilians who showed up Friday was “overwhelming,” he said — overwhelming in a good way.
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“I was so appreciative of it,” he said. “It brought me to tears.”
The ceremony to honor Wade began its genesis last fall, when Wade met with a veterans service officer to discuss a leg injury he suffered during an attack against a North Vietnamese Army unit in Dak To, in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
Incoming enemy small arms fire was so intense, the chopper Wade was riding in couldn’t land, so he and his squad were ordered to jump out. As he leaped from the chopper, Wade’s backpack shifted and he lost his balance.
“When I hit, I hit on one leg,” he recalled. “It completely destroyed my knee.”
The discussion about the leg injury segued into questions as to whether Wade had been awarded the Purple Heart, the award devised in 1782 by Gen. George Washington and that today honors service members who sustained wounds in combat situations.
“He asked me, ‘Do you have a Purple Heart?’” Wade recalled.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t.’”
“He said, ‘Why?’”
“I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
So the service officer helped Wade file the paperwork for the Purple Heart he had coming.
That request also led Army officials to pour through their own records, resulting in a determination that Wade’s role in a series of battles with North Vietnamese adversaries merited new, upgraded decorations for valor and service.
Wade said he would have been happy to receive the medals in the mail with no public fanfare. But he wasn’t counting on the reaction of his friend, Air Force Master Sgt. John Roskum, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who rides with Wade as a member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.
Wade traveled to Scott escorted by the CVMA and the Patriot Guard Riders, a group Wade volunteers with to honor fallen military members.
Wade deserved a public ceremony, and he was going to get one no matter what, according to Roskum, who works in ordinance and explosive disposal at Scott.
“He informed us he had received his awards through the mail, and I thought, that’s just not good enough,” Roskum said. “I asked him if they are being formally presented. And he said, ‘I don’t think so.’ So I’m Air Force on an Air Force base, and I know the people and the installation, and I thought, ‘You know, let’s make this happen for him.’ To me, it was just the right thing to do.”
During a rousing, high-energy speech honoring Wade’s wartime exploits, Roskum recounted how Wade and an Army squadmate nicknamed Mouse were hunkered down in a defensive position carved out of a bomb crater while withstanding an attack from a company of North Vietnamese soldiers. Without fear for their own lives, Wade and Mouse jumped out of the crater, braving intense enemy fire to carry desperately needed ammunition from a nearby hovering helicopters to other members of their Fourth Division unit.
“Sgt. Wade,” Roskum concluded. “Welcome home, brother!”
Wade volunteered twice to fight in Vietnam, and his service on behalf of country still means a great deal to him.
“If I could do it again, I’d do it again,” Wade said. “Without hesitation.”