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VA Palo Alto Health Care System

 

Two Afghanistan Veterans get Purple Heart at VA Palo Alto Hospital

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The two purple heart recipients with Army Major Gen. Robert Ostenberg.

The two purple heart recipients with Army Major Gen. Robert Ostenberg.

By Howard Mintz, San Jose Mercury News
Tuesday, January 17, 2012

San Jose Mercury News, by Howard Mintz -- For one sunsplashed Saturday afternoon in Palo Alto, the horrific wounds of combat took a backseat for Geoffrey Quevedo and Semisi Tokailagi, two Veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

With family, friends and fellow Vets hoisting American flags and encircling them, Quevedo and Tokailagi both received the Purple Heart in a courtyard at Palo Alto's Veterans Affairs hospital, where they are being treated for severe war injuries. Despite debilitating wounds, the two men beamed with pride, refusing to complain about their plights.

Quevedo, a Reedley native so boyish in appearance that he barely looks his 20 years of age, was just months from returning home when he stepped on a mine in November. He lost his left arm and left foot and suffered other injuries across his body.

Still, he has no regrets about his overseas Army service, which began in October 2010.

"Over there, we don't look at it that we're going to go home," said Quevedo, his 2-year-old daughter, Faith, in his lap as he sat in a wheelchair. "Your focus is your job."

He and Tokailagi are among the more than 7,000 U.S. service members who've received Purple Hearts for being wounded in the Afghanistan War.

Tokailagi, 25, was surrounded by his Fijian-American family, which made the trip from Seattle to watch Army Major Gen. Robert Ostenberg pin the medal on him.

They sang Fijian hymns and wiped away tears after Tokailagi received his Purple Heart.

A private first class, Tokailagi suffered major head injuries when he was wounded in a mortar attack on his compound last June.

Pawan Galhotra, the program director of the VA's polytrauma rehab center, said Tokailagi couldn't walk or talk when he began his treatment.

But Tokailagi, who spent two years on active duty, walked to the podium to receive his medal -- and spoke with a smile about receiving the Purple Heart.

"I was very happy," said Tokailagi, who does not recall the day of the mortar attack. "Hard work pays."

Margaret Tuirotuma, Tokailagi's grandmother, said while the wounds were a cause for sadness, the ceremony was a source of pride.

Selai Talebula, an aunt, also said it was important to the Fijian community for Tokailagi to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

For Tokailagi, the next step will be a final surgery to restore a missing part of his skull.

And then he'll be able to return home to the Seattle area.

Quevedo, likewise, has a road to recovery left. He's expected to soon be moved to a VA facility in San Diego, where he'll be fitted for prosthetics for both his arm and foot.

But now he'll always have the day he was able to celebrate a Purple Heart with his family swarming around him.

With a wan smile on a face with noticeable scarring from reconstructive surgery, Quevedo acknowledged the medal is not "a good award to get."

But, he added firmly, "It's an honor."