Christmas came early this year for disabled Vietnam War combat veteran Thomas Kurpetski of Riverhead.
More than half a century after his service, the Marine Corps lance corporal today received the medals he earned during his service in Vietnam. A contingent of fellow VFW members surprised him at his Elton Street home to present him with seven medals and a ribbon rack displayed in a shadow box.
Kurpetski, a two-time cancer survivor, who is wheelchair-bound following a series of illnesses including two strokes and multiple seizures, grew emotional when presented with the medals today. It was an honor he didn’t believe he would live to see — and wasn’t sure he’d earned. Kurpetski’s tour of duty in Vietnam was cut short by the death of his father while he was serving in Vietnam.
His service might well have been forgotten had it not been for the persistence of his wife Karen and the dedication of fellow VFW member Mike Wern, whose avocation is ensuring that veterans receive the recognition and benefits they deserve.
Wern, senior vice commander of VFW Post 6249 in Rocky Point, knew Kevin Carrick of Aquebogue from their time serving in the 106th Rescue Wing. Carrick, a member of Riverhead VFW Post 2476 and a friend of Karen Kurpetski (formerly Berezny) since their days at Riverhead High School, reached out to Wern about Tom Kurpetski.
“Basically, I help veterans get their benefits through the VA,” Wern said today. “Mostly I help them kind of just develop their case. When I was sitting down speaking with Karen and Tom, it was brought to my attention that he did not receive all of his medals and was not aware of all the medals he was entitled to,” Wern said.
“Once we kind of went through all of his paperwork, I found that he was entitled to several medals he wasn’t aware of, which was very emotional for him because he had always thought that because his time in the service was cut short by a family emergency,” Wern said.
Karen Kurpetski, her husband’s principal caregiver, said she’d been fighting since at least 2003 to get the medals her husband earned.
She encountered what she described as a runaround.
“This man put his life on the line for this country and now you’re going to tell me he’s not entitled to it?”
She appealed to Congressman Zeldin’s office but didn’t get anywhere, she said.
But Karen wasn’t willing to take ’no’ for an answer. Through Carrick, she connected with Wern — and the result unfolded this morning at the Kurpetski home.
“I knew they were coming. I just didn’t know when,” Karen said.
“This was my Christmas gift to Tom,” she said.
Tom, who struggles with verbalization due to his medical condition, tried to express what today’s presentation meant to him. He had a hard time, fighting back tears.
With the assistance of his wife Karen, the Marine Corps combat veteran said, “All gave some. Some gave all. I will never forget the 50,000 people who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam. That’s what, most of all, I feel bad about.”
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