Daniel A. Passarella says he didn't really give it much thought at first.
"I sent a letter to the War Department a month after I was discharged, and they sent me all my medals except the Purple Heart," said Passarella, a Brick Township resident. "I didn't really care at that time because I was just glad I was back."
That changed, however, one day when Passarella was sitting at his grandson Jack's baseball game.
"There were two boys there, with one dad, and the one boy said to the other, 'My dad has a Purple Heart.' That's when I realized it matters," he said.
And Thursday, surrounded by much of his family, Passarella finally received his Purple Heart in a ceremony at the office of Rep. Chris Smith, who represents New Jersey's Fourth District where Passarella lives, honoring his sacrifices in World War II, where he took shrapnel to his right shoulder and knee during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
"You have served your country faithfully and selflessly during one of the bloodiest wars in our nation's history, and fought in one of the pivotal battles," Smith said as he presented the medal. "I am sorry you didn't get this before today, but I want you to know a grateful nation honors you and all those who were hurt in combat, in defense of our country and democracy."
"It feels good," Passarella said after the presentation. "I'm glad I got it, for them," he said, gesturing to his family, which included his five children and most of his 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Passarella, born Aug. 7, 1922 in Chicago, served in the Glider Infantry of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, where, according to a video report compiled by his granddaughter, Sarah Passarella of Point Pleasant Beach, he was a radioman.
However, just two days before the D-Day invasion was to take place, Passarella's division – the 401st Glider Infantry Regiment, First Battalion, which had been joined with the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment – was informed there weren't enough planes to tow all the gliders, which were used to bring troops and equipment into enemy territory silently. They would have to board boats and support the invasion from the ocean.
Private First Class Passarella was injured on June 8, 1944, two days after the 101st Airborne landed at Utah Beach, and eventually sent back to the United States for treatment, where he received an honorable discharge for his service.
"I was amazed," said Sarah, who interviewed her grandfather for a project for her 11th-grade history class at Point Pleasant Beach High School earlier this year. "He never talked about his experiences."
Afterward, she and her family went to her grandfather's home in Brick – he and his wife of 66 years, Virginia, were in Florida at the time – where they saw the documents and medals related to his military service.
Sarah's video has been posted on YouTube, and you can view it here.
Passarella noted granddaughters Amy and Kristin also inquired about his World War II service, and said it was Amy's inquiries that provided impetus for him to try to get the long-awaited medal. Son Daniel, Sarah's father, reached out to Smith's office, and because Passarella had so much documentation – including the telegram sent to his mother informing her of his combat injury and the letter from the hospital regarding his honorable discharge due to the injury – it didn't take long for the medal to be approved.
From the time Smith met with Passarella and his son Daniel until the medal was approved was less than two weeks, Smith's staff said.
But the actual awarding of the medal – the Army wants it presented in a ceremony, Smith said – took a bit longer to arrange because of the desire to assemble as much of Passarella's family as possible. In addition to son Daniel and family, his son Jim and family traveled from Yorktown Heights, N.Y.; daughter Diane Thomas and family traveled from Binghamton, N.Y.; and Donna Bonomo and family came from Sparta for the ceremony, while Carole Marmion and family came from Toms River.
"That's what makes me feel good about all of this," Passarella said, gesturing to the cameras and microphones that filled what little space remained in a room full of his family.
Passarella attended college on the GI Bill and he and Virginia settled in New Jersey in Wyckoff in 1966. They moved to Brick in 1994, where they lived in the Lake Riviera section until moving to The Pavilion, a senior community in town, nine years later. Passarella was a branch manager for the food service company John Sexton and Company, which supplied restaurants, schools and institutions all over the country.
"The Purple Heart is special," said Smith, the former chairman of the House Veterans Committee, who said he has had the honor of presenting the medal a handful of times. "This is a reminder that freedom isn't free. They carry the wounds with them for the rest of their lives."
And that is why Smith, whose father served in World War II, is so passionate about veterans issues, particularly those related to health care issues of veterans returning from combat.
"You see the sacrifices they made," he said. "They deserve our help and respect."