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Remembering my grandfather's courage through his Purple Heart

As we celebrate Memorial Day, I would like to recognize the sacrifice of my dad’s father – former Joliet resident Jerry Vincent Dillon.

At 26, he was killed by German gunfire during the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945 in Belgium. I share this fact 74 years later because his Purple Heart was just passed down to me.

My dad’s father was drafted when my dad, Gerald, was 2, and his sister, Judy, 4. Here is the last letter my grandfather sent home:

“Dec. 25, 1944, Somewhere in France

Hello my darlings! I hope you are all well and fine and Merry Christmas. Mine is kinda blue. Last night and today, I never felt so blue in all my life. I love you so darn much. I am praying so hard to live through this so I can come back to you and my babies.

I think my luck is changing because I had a nice dinner and am inside where it’s warm. By that I mean I am lucky to be inside, instead of a foxhole like a lot of boys are. My outfit was expecting to be in a foxhole, but we hit it lucky. I had a lovely dinner. I had all the white meat of the turkey I could eat, mashed potatoes, dressing, asparagus, apple pie, coffee, six candy bars, one pack of gum, cigarettes and a cigar.

Honey, I love you so darn much and would give 10 years of my life if I could be with you and them on this day. Tell my babies I love and miss them. Tell them daddy will be home with them soon. I love you and them more than anything in the world. God bless and protect all of you.”

My dad and I would talk about what he knew about his father, including whether a Purple Heart was awarded to the family. My dad didn’t know.

Then one day last year, my dad called me in Denver where I live. He told me: “I have my dad’s Purple Heart and I’ll give it to you when I see you next time.” He said his sister, who now lived in Paradise, Calif., had traveled to St. Louis last year, and gave him their dad’s medal. I was amazed.

Unfortunately, there was not a next time. My dad died unexpectedly Feb. 1. When I traveled to his funeral, my mom gave me the Purple Heart. The box was opened to show all of his grown children and grandchildren for the first time. Then someone realized that the medal would have perished in the Paradise fire that devastated that town. Aunt Judy lost the house when the Paradise fire burned it with all its contents.

It is remarkable the Purple Heart has survived and, by some miracle, is still here for future generations to see and remind the family that one of their descendants gave the ultimate sacrifice in war. That should never be forgotten.

• Tonja Dillon Castaneda is the granddaughter of Jerry Vincent Dillon of Joliet.

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