Congressman Brian Higgins joined local Vietnam War veteran Mykola "Nick" Shwec and the family of late Korean War veteran Michael "Mike" Licata on Monday at the Purple Heart Memorial, along the Walk of Heroes, at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. On National Purple Heart Day, Higgins was there to honor the service and sacrifice of both Purple Heart recipients, and all veterans.
In 1932, the Purple Heart was created to honor George Washington's memory and meritorious ideals. The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the U.S. Armed Forces wounded or killed while serving.
Higgins said, "These brave men gave everything to our country during their time of service and continued to give to our community upon their return home. It is with honor and extreme humility that we thank not just these, but all veterans and their families, for incredible sacrifices both on and off the battlefield this Purple Heart Day."
Higgins was joined by representatives from the Buffalo VA Medical Center and the Military Order of the Purple Heart Buffalo Chapter 187 for a ceremony formally presenting Specialist Shwec and the family of Private Licata with the medals the men earned over 50 years ago.
Specialist Mykola 'Nick' Shwec's story:
Like many Vietnam veterans, when Shwec returned to the U.S. after two years defending his country on the front lines, there was no warm welcome or formal recognition. In fact, the Purple Heart owed to Shwec, for wounds inflicted in action, wasn't even listed on his DD-214 records.
After learning of Shwec's story from the Erie County Veterans Service Agency, Higgins went to work.
"Although more than 50 years have passed since Specialist Shwec returned home, it is never too late to appropriately recognize our veterans and welcome them home," Higgins said. "Mr. Shwec's story is one of humble service and selfless patriotism. By correcting the record, we say 'Thank you' in the best way we can - by seeing he receives the care he earned and deserves."
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said, "I am happy that we were able to assist Mr. Shwec in addressing a series of issues and, at the same time, help with the process of having him receive the medals he so duly deserves for his dedication and commitment to our country. I thank our Erie County employees who worked with staff from the district office of Congressman Higgins on this case, and encourage other veterans in our community who are seeking assistance to not hesitate in contacting our Veterans Service Agency."
Shwec was born Oct. 5, 1942, in Ukraine. In 1944, his family fled from Ukraine as refugees during World War II and lived in Germany and Belgium before coming to the U.S. in 1954. Shwec graduated from Hutchinson Central Technical High School and entered active service for the U.S. Army on Sept. 18, 1964.
Shwec trained with the 25th Infantry Division for three months in Hawaii and then served in the 197th Armed Helicopter Company as a door gunner. He and fellow gunner Dennis quickly earned a reputation amongst their squad as team members willing to step up and participate in aerial missions. Shwec, who at the time was single and without children, frequently volunteered first to go on combat missions, selflessly putting his own life on the line to protect those with families at home. The two brave comrades flew hundreds of missions and grew close.
On Sept. 3, 1966, Shwec was honorably discharged from active duty service at the rank of specialist four, but continued to serve in the U.S. Army Reserves until September 1970. Upon returning home, Shwec worked at Westinghouse, Curtis Wright and then Ford Motor Co., until his retirement. He met his wife, Anna, at the Ukrainian Community Center on Genesee Street. They had a son, Andrew, and daughter, Elizabeth. Today, they have two grandchildren, William and Benjamin. Nick and Anna continue to be involved in the community through volunteer work, and they're active at the Ukrainian American Post 23.
Shwec only recently contacted Erie County Veteran Services and Higgins' office, because he wanted to receive health care through the Department of Veteran Affairs, but his military records did not list his Purple Heart, which entitles recipients to discounted health care.
"This was a case of a veteran who came in the office looking for assistance in one area and, by working with service officer Felice Krycia, we were able to address other issues that had been causing him some distress," said David Shenk, director of the Erie County Veterans Service Agency. "By working with Congressman Brian Higgins' senior caseworker Walter Koch, many of those issues, including the issuance of all of his medals and getting him registered in VA health care, have now been rectified. It is so important that those veterans who have served get all the benefits that they are entitled to."
"VA recognizes the extraordinary sacrifices of Purple Heart recipients, and encourage veterans to seek care from VA," said Brian Stiller, director, VA Western New York Healthcare System. "We can provide a full range of services for Purple Heart recipients to include exemption from a co-payment for hospital and outpatient care."
Higgins' office contacted the U.S. Army, provided the necessary documents, and Shwec was immediately issued amended records, a DD-215, officially listing the Purple Heart. The Army also added the Air Medal with two silver and four bronze oak leaf clusters, Vietnam Service Medal, Meritorious Unit Commendation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon, and his Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross, all of which he earned, but were not included on the original DD-214.
For his service, Shwec earned:
- Cold War Certificate
- Combat Crewman's Badge
- National Defense Service Medal
- Vietnam Service Medal with 3 Bronze Service Stars (each Service Star is awarded for campaigns Shwec participated in from 1965-66)
- Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon
- Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross
- Meritorious Unit Commendation
- Sharpshooter Badge with Rifle Bar
- Senior Army Aviation Badge
- Air Medal with two Silver and four Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters (Shwec was awarded each of his Air Medals for "distinguishing himself by meritorious achievement" in hundreds of aerial combat missions over hostile territory, saving countless lives)
- Purple Heart Award (awarded to Shwec for shrapnel wounds received in action during combat in the Republic of Vietnam on March 13, 1966)
- Distinguished Flying Cross (one of the highest awards bestowed by the Army, ranking higher in precedence than the Bronze Star Medal; the Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to members of the military who distinguish themselves in support of operations by heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight)
According to the U.S. Army citation, Shwec was given the Distinguished Flying Cross for: "Heroism while participating in aerial flight. Specialist Four Shwec distinguished himself by exceptionally valorous actions on 18 March 1966 while serving as door gunner on an armed helicopter on a medical evacuation operation near Duc Hoa, Republic of Vietnam. A Vietnamese force had engaged a large Viet Cong force and sustained several casualties which required immediate evacuation. Upon entering the operational area, Specialist Four Shwec's quick thinking and aggressiveness prevented disaster as the Viet Cong marked two ambush sites with red smoke and the friendly unit also marked the landing zone with red smoke. Specialist Four Shwec selected the area that was most likely to be the extraction site and directed his aircraft commander to that area. While reconnoitering the landing zone, his aircraft received intense hostile fire from three sides. He quickly determined the location of the friendly soldiers and began to return the fire. His estimate of the ground tactical situation was so thorough that he was able to place effective fire into the Viet Cong emplacements which were located within fifty meters of friendly positions. This enabled the medical evacuation helicopters to land, load the wounded, and depart the area. Specialist Four Shwec's personal bravery and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army."
Recognizing his continued service to other veterans and the community on Purple Heart Day, Shwec said he wanted to share his story not for recognition, but to spread the word so other veterans might also gain better access to health care. He said he wants all veterans who received the Purple Heart to know they are eligible to receive medical benefits at the VA hospital.
Shwec said he also still hopes to reconnect with his friend someday, a 50-caliber gunner he remembers as Dennis from Pittsburg.
Private Michael Licata's story:
Michael J. Licata was born in Buffalo on Sept. 22, 1930. Licata entered active service on Sept. 6, 1951, and was deployed to the Korean peninsula during the Korean War. Over the course of his service, Private First Class Licata was wounded during battle in North Korea on Aug. 10, 1952. He bravely served the U.S. until his honorable discharge on June 5, 1953.
Following his discharge from active duty, Licata continued to serve the U.S. in the Army Reserves for the next eight years.
Upon his return, Licata married his wife, Josephine Mendola, on July 16, 1955. They had three children: John, Robert and Carol. He worked as an employee of the U.S. Postal Service, and he was a devoted husband and father.
A commitment to service was deeply ingrained in who Licata was. On the front page of every new food journal Licata carried in his back pocket, as a result of his diabetes, he would handwrite the Prayer of St. Francis. Higgins' camp said Licata's early passing at the age of 54 to cancer was a tragedy not just for his family, but for the West Side of Buffalo Community.
For Licata, community activism and service was a calling. He was a member of the American Legion and the Knights of Columbus, but he also coached West Side little league football and baseball for more than 20 years. Licata was more than just a coach to his players, often stepping in to help kids in rough family situations. He was seemingly most comfortable on the ball field, and the effect he had on his players showed. Coach Licata is fondly remembered by his former players, with many still reaching out to his family to say how Licata inspired them to coach their own children. The legacy Licata left as a family man, community activist, and coaching legend still carries forward today, as the hardball field at LaSalle Park in Buffalo is now named the Mike Licata Field.
Licata didn't talk about his experiences in Korea to his wife or children. Like Shwec, Licata never actively sought out the medals he earned and rightfully deserved from his time at war. He simply wanted to live his life serving his family and making an impact while serving his community. Only after his passing did his family finally seek out his medals and the recognition Licata was entitled to from his time serving this country.
The youngest of Licata's four grandchildren, James, is a cadet at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, and said he is proud to carry his grandfather's prayer book from Korea with him.
For his Service, Licata earned:
- National Defense Service Medal
- Korean Service Medal
- United Nations Service Medal, for his service in defending South Korea during the Korean War
- Purple Heart Award for the wounds he sustained in battle
"On this Purple Heart Day, we are reminded to listen to, remember, and thank all who have served and sacrificed for this great country," Higgins said. "Today we are especially honored to pay tribute to the service and sacrifice by Michael Licata and Nick Shwec."