Purple Heart trip helps Gold Star families keep memories alive

Published Oct 11, 2017 at 4:00pm

Vietnam War veteran Joe Fraccola of Rome will be leading a trip to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor on Thursday, Oct. 19. During the tour Purple Heart recipients and members of local Gold Star families - those families that lost a loved one in combat - will relive and reflect on their service to the United States.

“This trip gives these men and women who served a chance to tell their stories,” Fraccola, who serves as commander of the Central New York Chapter No. 490 Military Order of the Purple Heart Veterans’ Organization, said.

“If they are willing, they will be interviewed and have their pictures taken and have their stories told online,” Fraccola added.

George Washington introduced the Purple Heart to soldiers wounded during the Revolutionary War. The stories of those honored with Purple Hearts do more than serve as a legacy, Fraccola said.

“This program is educational,” he said.

“This gives a chance for children to learn about things that are no longer taught in school. We have ceremonies, but we sometime lose the stories behind those ceremonies.”

Education, Fraccola said, benefits more than those learning from the past. It helps those who were part of it.

“I recently watched Ken Burns’s Vietnam War documentary, and although I served in Vietnam I still learned things from watching it,” he said.

Fraccola earned his Purple heart after being wounded in an early morning rocket attack on June 7, 1969.

“We were encamped and were hit by what we believed were rockets fired into our camp by Viet Cong forces. They attacked until three in the morning,” Fracccola said.

“I was wounded, but was able to return to my unit not long afterwards. The Purple Heart, to me, is a sign of what I did for my country. It’s something that will never be taken from me,” he added.

A son remembered

Maria Babula and her husband Mike, of Whitesboro, will join other Gold Star families during the trip. Babula lost her oldest son, Capt. George A. Wood, on Nov. 20, 2003 when his tank hit an improvised explosive device near Baqubah, Iraq.

“George had his future taken from him. This is how we remember him,” Maria Babula said.

Wood, 33 when he passed, has had a bridge over the Erie Canal near where he grew up named after him, and also a post office in Utica. But the best memories remain in his family’s hearts, and in the paintings Wood, an aspiring artist, made that hang in his parents’ home.

“The bridge runs over the spot in the canal where George would take his three younger brothers fishing,” Maria Babula said. “He was a natural leader, and he ruled the roost among his brothers. But he was good to them.”

Wood was a standout offensive tackle for Notre Dame High School’s football team and later at Cornell University. He was an enthusiastic student of history, and enrolled in ROTC at the University of Albany, at age 26, while pursuing his master’s degree. He continued the leadership skills he displayed among his family, and was soon named captain.

“George was a tank commander, and he cared about his troops the way he cared for his brothers,” Maria Babula said.

“Tanks are usually placed behind ground troops, but George insisted, he would ride in a forward position with them. He always cared about others. He was talking about buying Christmas presents for his brothers when his tank hit the IED,” she added.

Wood’s legacy lives on in his daughter, Maria Christine Wood. Maria Wood is 17 and lives in Toledo, Ohio. She shares her late father’s love of art, and after graduating high school she will study art and graphic design.

“Maria was three-years-old when her father died, and she doesn’t have any memories of him, but we have kept his store alive for her,” Maria Babula said.

Maria Babula retired from her nursing job four years after George was killed because of the stress suffered from his passing. She said she finds solace by spending time with other local Gold Star mothers, but the challenges of moving on continue.

“I have a friend, another Gold Star mother who lives in Camden, and she was upset when we withdrew our troops from Iraq. She felt we left too early, and we gave up everything we and won,” Maria Babula said.

President Barack Obama began troop reduction in Iraq in June 2009.

Mike Babula, who married Maria after her first husband died, shares some of the frustrations faced by Gold Star families.

“We see these rich athletes protesting the anthem, kneeling when it’s played. None of them ever faced combat, and I can guarantee of they had to fight for our country they would act differently,” he said.