Cane ceremony honors Purple Heart veterans

David Johnson, left, of the Village Santiago, receives a personalized walking cane from Christina Regule, retired U.S. Army chaplain, during a special event for Purple Heart recipients at Eisenhower Regional Recreation Complex.

As Purple Heart recipient U.S. Army Col. David Johnson waited for his personalized wooden walking cane Saturday at Eisenhower Regional Recreation Complex, he already had a plan for it. “It’s quite an honor and a special memory,” said Johnson, of the Village Santiago. “I’ll cherish it and give it to my grandson.” Johnson was among seven Purple Heart recipients from across Florida who were presented personalized wooden walking canes in honor of their service as their loved ones beamed with pride, including U.S. Marine Sgt. Gordon Carlson, of the Village of Bonita. U.S. Congressman Daniel Webster also spoke at the ceremony to thank the veterans for their sacrifice. The Indian River Woodcarvers Club of Vero Beach, Florida carved the wooden canes that feature the recipient’s name, rank, branch of service, and their medals and awards. Each carver adds their own personal touch, making each cane unique. 

This is the first time the ceremony, put on by Chapter 795 of The Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH) and Col. Phillip C. Delong Marine Corps League Detachment 1267, has been hosted outside of The Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce and the woodcarvers meeting space, said Reggie Nealy, commander of Chapter 795 MOPH.

Johnson was wounded in action on Dec. 29, 1968 in Vietnam while serving in the 101st Airborne Division, The Screaming Eagles, and Carlson was wounded in action on Aug. 25, 1967 in Vietnam in a fight for Hill 861.

Carlson will keep his cane with his war chest of other memorabilia he collected during his service.

“It’s quite an honor and very emotional,” Carlson said.

Ernie Rivera, past national commander of MOPH, several Tri-County Women Veterans members, American Legion Post 347 members also attended the ceremony.

Since the group started, they have carved 458 canes for Purple Heart recipients, said Charles Hoffman, Indian River Woodcarvers Club president.

“I don’t think that we do enough for our veterans,” he said. “I think (people often) thank them for their service and then let them go off.” 

They make the canes as part of group’s The Purple Heart Cane Project. Veterans receive these canes for free in honor of their service and are presented at ceremonies like this, Hoffman said.

The canes often become family heirlooms, said Nealy, of the Village of Piedmont.

The Villages was chosen for this ceremony after Nealy reached out to group, because several members of Chapter 795 MOPH had received canes at previous ceremonies and he thought it would be nice to host it here, Nealy and Hoffman said.

Bill Ward, Marine Corps detachment 1267 commandant; Christina Regule, U.S. Army Chaplin-Ret; and Hoffman presented the cane to each recipient.

Both Carlson and Johnson said it was also an honor to be surrounded by other Purple Heart recipients and heroes.

Others who received canes included: U.S. Army Command Sgt. Major Eddie Harrison of Orange Park who was wounded in action in Feb. 1, 1967 in Vietnam; U.S. Army Command Sgt. William Smith of Orange Park who was wounded in action on Feb. 1, 1967 in Vietnam; U.S. Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jim Glover of Leesburg who was wounded in action in October 1950 in Korea; U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jim Holland of Tallahassee who was wounded twice in action on Aug. 25, 1966 and March 29, 1969 in Vietnam, and U.S. Army Colonel Bobbie Fernander of Sarasota who was wounded in action on May 1, 1971 in Vietnam.  

Retired U.S. Army Col. Harry Lumpkin, of the Village of Hadley, provided tours of Eisenhower during the event and shared the history and stories behind the memorabilia in the recreation center. He said it was an honor to be there and was something he wouldn’t have missed despite having had surgery a few weeks before.

“One of the things that’s very unique about MOPH is that it is the only veterans’ organization where every single member served in combat and was wounded,” Rivera said. “Our mission statement at the MOPH is to ensure that as a country we never forget—we never forget those that were awarded the Purple Heart.” 

Staff Writer Veronica Wernicke can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or veronica.wernicke@thevillagesmedia.com.