‘Bound together by service’: South Hadley Purple Heart recipient to be honored in New York

  • Former Army Staff Sergeant Brian Willette of South Hadley served with the 1st Battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan and received the Purple Heart after being injured by an IED in Laghman Province in September of 2010. He spoke about his service, his family and starting the western Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart during an interview with the Gazette at the South Hadley Public Library on Thursday, August 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Former Army Staff Sergeant Brian Willette of South Hadley is the Commander of the Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Photographed on Thursday, August 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Former Army Staff Sergeant Brian Willette of South Hadley served with the 1st Battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan and received the Purple Heart after being injured by an IED in Laghman Province in September of 2010. He spoke about his service, his family and starting the Western Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart during an interview with the Gazette at the South Hadley Public Library on Thursday, August 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Former Army Staff Sgt. Brian Willette of South Hadley served with the 1st Battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan and received the Purple Heart after being injured by an IED in Laghman Province in September 2010. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Former Army Staff Sergeant Brian Willette of South Hadley served with the 1st Battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan and received the Purple Heart after being injured by an IED in Laghman Province in September of 2010. He spoke about his service, his family and starting the western Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart during an interview with the Gazette at the South Hadley Public Library on Thursday, August 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Former Army Staff Sergeant Brian Willette of South Hadley served with the 1st Battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan and received the Purple Heart after being injured by an IED in Laghman Province in September of 2010. He spoke about his service, his family and starting the western Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart during an interview with the Gazette at the South Hadley Public Library on Thursday, August 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Former Army Staff Sergeant Brian Willette of South Hadley served with the 1st Battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan and received the Purple Heart after being injured by an IED in Laghman Province in September of 2010. He spoke about his service, his family and starting the western Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart during an interview with the Gazette at the South Hadley Public Library on Thursday, August 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Former Army Staff Sergeant Brian Willette of South Hadley served with the 1st Battalion of the 102nd Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan and received the Purple Heart after being injured by an IED in Laghman Province in September of 2010. He spoke about his service, his family and starting the western Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart during an interview with the Gazette at the South Hadley Public Library on Thursday, August 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Former Army Staff Sergeant Brian Willette of South Hadley is the Commander of the Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Photographed on Thursday, August 1, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Another photo by Willette for his profile in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor shows his armored vehicle after it was destroyed by an IED when he was injured in Afghanistan. COURTESY BRIAN WILLETTE

  • This photograph, provided by Brian Willette for his profile in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, shows his armored vehicle, radio call signal “Mercury 22,” the day he was injured while serving in Afghanistan. COURTESY BRIAN WILLETTE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/2/2019 3:13:24 PM

Correction: A previous version of Saturday’s article on Brian Willette did not correctly distinguish between the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor and the National Purple Heart Honor Mission, which are two separate organizations. The same version also misstated Brian Maher’s job duties and when he said “We hope that we get consumed with Purple Heart recipients who want to come and apply,” he was referring to veterans applying to be on future trips, not in the hall. An earlier version also incorrectly reported how long it was between Brian Willette’s incident and his son’s; Kevin Willette’s incident occurred a few weeks later.

SOUTH HADLEY — When Brian Willette’s armored vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device in the heart of Afghanistan’s Laghman Province on Sept. 13, 2010, he didn’t know if he would make it out alive.

“I was able to say three times, ‘If it stops now, I’m alive,’ ‘If it stops now, I’m alive,’ ‘If it stops now, I’m alive,’ and it stopped,” Willette said, recalling how the vehicle rocked and twisted six feet in the air.

Willette, 54, of South Hadley, remembers being in a haze of confusion and adrenaline when he realized he made it through the attack — he immediately asked the driver to his left if he was OK. Oil covered the windshield, and the truck was stuck on its side. Though blood covered the driver’s face, he told Willette he was safe, and Willette exited the vehicle to help pull out an injured gunner.

No one died in the explosion, but Willette still suffers from traumatic brain injury and a back injury. A few months after the attack, he was a Purple Heart medal, which is given to members of the United States armed forces who have been wounded or awarded posthumously to loved ones in remembrance of kin killed in the line of duty.

Now the state commander of the Department of Massachusetts for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Willette is among 33 veterans from 30 states being honored next week by the National Purple Heart Honor Mission at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor on an all-expenses-paid trip to the museum in Orange County, New York.

Coming from a military family — his father served in the Army Honor Guard in Washington, D.C. and his grandfather before him during World War II — Willette joined the Army’s 24th Infantry Division in 1982 at 17, young enough that his mother had to sign release papers since he was still a minor.

And while he always wanted to fight in combat for the U.S. armed forces, it wasn’t until almost 30 years later, when Willette was a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, that he finally had his chance to fight.

“It took a long time,” he said. “I finally made it to Afghanistan and served in a way that I always wanted to serve.”

Sept. 13, 2010

Willette clearly remembers the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2010, when he was first informed by his superiors that he was to command an armed truck on a mission two days later in Laghman Province, located in the eastern part of Afghanistan. Just that day, he was raising ceremonial flags above his base for fellow soldiers’ families.

But the day before the supply mission, Willette felt anticipation among his fellow soldiers as they prepared their multi-role armored vehicle, more commonly known as an MRAV, radio call signal “Mercury 22.” None were supposed to go, as they were normally not in rotation for missions, but each took the opportunity in stride.

“It was kind of a crew of misfits,” Willette said.

On Sept. 13, the mission seemed to be going without a hitch, as they traveled safely to their destination. But it was getting late, and the team was supposed to move back to their base.

It was on that return trip that enemy personnel managed to set off an improvised explosive device, or IED, right below Willette’s truck, blasting the vehicle into the air, destroying it. Willette said he knows it could have been much worse, that often people don’t come out of situations like that alive.

He was in the passenger seat, and the explosive seemed to have gone off right underneath that side’s front tire.

“If it had been maybe a fraction of a second later, it would have done much more damage to the vehicle,” he said. “So we were lucky.”

Advocacy

That “luck” is what prompted Willette to get involved with organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

Willette isn’t interested in getting sympathy for his injuries or grand recognition for his service. Instead, he says he has an obligation to be a voice for those who were either injured or killed serving in battle.

In a seemingly fateful turn of events, Willette’s son, Kevin Willette, was the soldier who had the honor of pinning the Purple Hart on his father.

Only a few weeks after he pinned the medal on his father, Kevin was attacked as well — injured by a grenade thrown while he was on tower guard duty in Kabul in 2011. He also received the Purple Heart due to traumatic brain injury.

Willette said this connection with his son is one that prompted him to reflect on the decoration and what it means to families and veterans across the country. His daughter, Christine Lupacchino, also serves in the Air National Guard.

“For me, we were already bound together by service,” he said. “But this is a unique bond that I have with my son.”

In 2011, Willette started the western Massachusetts chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart with 12 recipients of the medal. Now, the chapter has around 500 members who served in multiple, different conflicts.

He said he’s focused on raising awareness for injured veterans, both through projects like the Purple Heart Trail, which dedicates roads across the country to Purple Heart recipients, and through legislation.

Willette said he is particularly proud of advocating in Boston four years ago for legislation that grants those with Purple Heart license plates free admission to Massachusetts state parks. Previously, he said that perk was reserved for disabled veterans only.

“What seems like a small thing means a lot to us,” he said.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart serves as an organization that accepts and welcomes all injured veterans, Willette said. After the Vietnam War, many veterans, he said, were rejected by other organizations.

“This is the one place that never shunned them,” he said. “That’s what I get out of it. Just honoring them and their service.”

Patriot Project

The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor has existed for a while as a repository of stories celebrating many recipients of the medal. This is the first year that the National Purple Heart Honor Mission, a separate organization from the hall of honor, is bringing a group of veterans down to the museum ahead of National Purple Heart Day on Aug. 7.

Called the Purple Heart Patriot Project, the three-day trip brings veterans chosen by their state’s military order to stay in the Thayer Hotel, tour the West Point military academy and participate in a ceremony at the Hall of Honor.

The hall, located in New Windsor, New York, is not very well known to members of the public or veterans who have received Purple Hearts, said Brian Maher, executive director of the National Purple Heart Honor Mission.

“At the end of the day, we wanted to take people who haven’t been to the hall,” Maher said about the trip. “We hope that we get consumed with Purple Heart recipients who want to come and apply.”

Maher said he also hopes that the program can send around 50 or 60 veterans from each state in future years. The program, he said, raises awareness for veterans who have sacrificed their comfort so that others may live easier lives.

“What better way to do that by taking them to a museum that was built in their honor,” he said.

And just like many other veterans, Willette was selected to join the group because of his bravery in the face of an uncertain future.

“He was fighting for our country and was wounded in battle,” Maher said. “That’s something we can never repay, and we hope this can serve as a token of gratitude.”




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy