PORTAGE | When Rich Birs, 94, was wounded on April 15, 1945, in combat on Okinawa, shrapnel in his leg was so disastrous it ended his four years of service.
But Friday afternoon, almost seven decades after that critical day, Birs officially received his Purple Heart in front of family and friends at his favorite locale, Moods Bar in Portage.
“Over 60 years ago, this man was wounded in combat and he recently received this Purple Heart in the mail. I don’t like that,” Portage City Council member Ted Uzelac said. "I’m no official, but I’m a wounded veteran and it would be an honor if I could pin this on you."
It was Birs’ sister Alice who persistently sought the proper recognition of her brother’s service in World War II, working to fill out the proper forms and following up with the government for many years.
Birs also was presented with an American flag by Leroy Huettner, quartermaster for Portage VFW 7760, as well as membership.
Elizabeth Johnson, director of programming and planning, presented Birs with a letter of congratulations from U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky.
For Birs’ family and friends, who traveled from Wisconsin and Texas as well as from nearby towns, the recognition may have come later than it should but it was still just as sweet.
“He’s a fixture in this bar. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, but he comes in to drink iced coffee and watch 'Jeopardy!' and converse with the people,” said Lianne Loving, owner of Moods Bar who organized the celebration. "He’s been around since the first day I opened, so it’s only right we try to honor him."
One of those bar patrons, Jean White, said that Birs, whom she calls "Aloha Rich" because he greets people with an “aloha” instead of a hello, is deserving of the honor.
“He’s a lovely man. He can tell you stories,” she said, wiping away tears.
His wife, Carol Birs, said the recognition was “wonderful” and she was happy that family and friends came out to show their support.
For Birs, the recognition was a dream come true.
“It was worth the wait. Because all of my friends are here,” he said.