True Heroes

Several Fox Valley Veterans Have Received Purple Heart

by Tim Froberg

Pictured (left to right): Adam Alexander, Ken Coenen, and Wayne Martin

In a horrific, life-changing moment, the bullet came out of nowhere and pierced Adam Alexander’s skull.

The year was 2011 in the province of Paktia, Afghanistan, and Alexander, a United States Army Sergeant operating as part of the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, had been struck by sniper fire.

He was originally given only a 5% chance of survival, but Alexander beat the medical odds. Multiple surgeries followed, and Alexander was hospitalized for 11 months. A decade has since passed, and Alexander is medically retired and living a quiet, peaceful life in Oshkosh with his wife, Kate, a captain in the U.S. Army reserve.

“I jokingly call it (the bullet) my enemy marksmanship badge,” said Alexander. “It’s all part of the job. I volunteered, and it comes with the territory. Unfortunately, I ended up being one of the ones that had the ticket. But everything is going great now. I’m still on this side of the grass and every day on this side of the grass is a good one.”

Alexander is one of several Fox Cities veterans who has received the Purple Heart, a U.S. military medal awarded to those who were wounded or killed while serving in the U.S. armed forces on or after April 5, 1917. It is the oldest U.S. military award and was previously known as the Badge of Military Merit. The Purple Heart’s roots can be traced back to the 1700s and the Revolutionary War when it was established by George Washington, who was the general and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.

National Purple Heart Day will be celebrated on Aug. 7. Veterans like Alexander, fortunate enough to survive their injuries, will gather at cemeteries May 31 on Memorial Day to pay tribute to those who died in military service.

“There are so many others who did not receive a Purple Heart because they passed away due to their wounds,” said Jack Voight, a prominent member of five veterans’ organizations in the area. “Unfortunately, many Purple Hearts have been awarded posthumously, with their families receiving the award.”

Getting a Purple Heart certainly comes with a price. Although Alexander has made a remarkable recovery, he has problems with his memory.

“My memory is just shot,” he said. “I have no memory of the fight. The last thing I remember was being on a conference call with my deputy commander who was at a larger base. The bullet struck me between the eyes and went through the right frontal lobe, which pretty much had to be removed entirely along with a large piece of my skull. I don’t even know how many surgeries it took to reconstruct everything and get all the chronic tissue out.”

Appleton resident Wayne Martin received his Purple Heart in 1969 after a mortar shell exploded in front of him on Feb. 25 in a northern section of Vietnam. Martin was hospitalized for three months with shrapnel wounds to his chest.

“It (the shrapnel) went through my lung and just missed my heart,” said Martin. “The doctor said he didn’t know how it missed my heart. I still remember it. We came in off patrol and were walking down a road. All of a sudden that round was right there. It just hit. We didn’t have no holes to go into or anything.”

Martin, a soldier in the U.S. Marines, was among six members of his platoon hit by the mortar shell, and one of only two survivors.

“I do feel very fortunate,” said Martin. “There was a guy right next to me from Chattanooga, Tennessee named Ronald Waugh, who I went through just about all training with, and he died next to me. I got a chance to meet his parents. There was a young Marine with us who had only been in country 25 days or so. He was just a young kid, 18 or 19, and he didn’t make it.”

Martin will turn 73 in May and is commander of VFW post 2778 in Appleton. He feels it’s extremely important to remember fallen comrades on Memorial Day but admits it’s a painful day for him.

“When it gets to Memorial Day, that’s the worst time for me,” Martin said. “We do all these services honoring our deceased veterans and it bothers me. I take pride that I received a Purple Heart, but I think about all the guys who didn’t make it.”

Korean War veteran Ken Coenen was a Purple Heart recipient in January of 1952. Koenen, an Appleton resident, was hit by a grenade as a 21 year old serving for the U.S. Army above the 38th parallel — a military term given to the boundary between North Korea and South Korea.

Coenen, 90, who was hospitalized for a month, received a concussion, and had shrapnel lodged in his back and arms. His teeth were also knocked out on the right side.

“I think about it once in a while,” said Coenen, now 91. “I get talking to somebody, and a lot of it comes back. It (receiving the Purple Heart) means a lot to me. I mean, people better start waking up and realizing what’s going on in this country. All our vets, not only me, but anybody in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam put our lives on the line along with all the people who were killed. And then to have something like this happening to our country is a bunch of baloney.”


Adam Alexander, Afghanistan

Tom Bartel, Vietnam

Paul Birschbach, Vietnam

Chuck Bongers, Vietnam

Gary Brynjulfson, Vietnam

Ken Coenen, Korea

Richard Daseke, Vietnam

Phillip Moore, Vietnam

David “Roach” Mueller, Vietnam

Wayne Martin, Vietnam

Roy Rogers, Vietnam