EAST PEORIA — A black humvee pulled up to the VFW Post 2078 of East Peoria on Sunday morning. A smile instantly lit up on 87-year-old Leo Reich’s face as he was escorted out of the vehicle to find a crowd standing, saluting and clapping for him.
While serving in the Army Reserves during the Korean War as a Sgt. 1st Class of the 12th Field Artillery Battalion he received a Bronze Star, the fourth highest military honor, in 1962. Unfortunately for Reich and many other veterans from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, there were never presentations to honor them for the awards they earned through their service.
When a co-worker, who happens to be Reich’s son-in law, brought the underrepresented award to Jaclyn Bice’s attention, she knew she had to do something about it. Bice is a Sgt. 1st Class of the Army’s 485th engineer company and also a member of Post 2078.
Reich’s daughter discovered the award among his discharge papers after Reich had mentioned something to his family about it. Combining Bice’s military knowledge and Cyndy Jefford’s experience from her past career as a Caterpillar Inc. event planner, they were able to put together a “long overdue” ceremony in Reich’s honor.
“I think it’s a terrible travesty that we have veterans who earn this and nobody has recognized that,” said Jefford. “It touched my heart and meant everything to me to be a part of this. It was worth all this work just to see him receive that and know that his family was able to see him receive it too.”
Jefford explained that in many cases, the family is not present for such ceremonies, which only made it more special to her.
The heat of the day was almost unbearable as the speakers strained to be heard over industrial fans. But State Rep. Darin LaHood said the high temperatures could not be more fitting to serve as a reminder of the service and sacrifice that Reich and many others endured in order for the crowd to be sitting there in that moment.
Following LaHood in an address was East Peoria Mayor John Kahl. As a combat veteran himself, he felt honored and humbled to be a part of the ceremony.
“I don’t think we do this enough,” Kahl said in his address to the crowd.
Both LaHood and Kahl extended their hands in a thank you to the veteran.
Bice was honored to present the award to Reich herself. She pinned the red, white and blue star medal to his chest as Jefford read off the 1962 official orders to declare Bronze Star proclamation from President Kennedy and the crowd erupted in applause. Tears of joy were shed as many veterans took their caps off and wiped their eyes that were hidden behind sunglasses.
“He won’t stand up here very long,” Bice joked as the applause died down and family and friends attempted to snap a few pictures.
She explained that while it was supposed to be a surprise they ended up telling Reich the night before. Being very humble, he said he did not want a ceremony. After Bice explained to Reich the great honor it would be to do such a thing for him and that the proceeds from the food, drinks and desserts following the ceremony would go to the Honor Flight, he was all in.
Reich just returned from an Honor Flight himself, so this cause was very near and dear to his heart. He did not have much to say other than that the ceremony was beautiful. The grin on his face that grew bigger with each new person that approached him and the laughs they shared was more than words could ever suffice. Reich was declared an honorary member of the Post and gifted an American flag in a beautiful display case as a ‘thank you’ for his service.
“We continue to have ceremonies honoring our military for their awards to this day, so we just want to be able to give back to our veterans,” said Bice. “It’s not just about being a member here; it’s about the friends, volunteers and supporters that really make this place.”
Grace Barbic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (309)686-3194. Follow her on Twitter @gracebarbic.