Brainerd native Bill Wroolie observed Sept. 11 anniversary ceremonies at the Pentagon earlier today.
"It's going to be a pretty somber experience," Wroolie said Tuesday afternoon. "It will be interesting just to be part of it."
The 54-year-old Brainerd man was elected to Military Order of the Purple Heart national commander and chief executive officer last month and it all began when he received a medal most would rather never get.
He spoke from the military order's national headquarters in Springfield, Va., located about 10 minutes from the Pentagon. Wroolie will serve as the military order's steward for the next year. Because of security measures, the Washington High School graduate expected to arrive at the Pentagon more than two hours before the ceremony today.
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Sixteen of the 32 military personnel wounded at the Pentagon a year ago today are the military order's newest members. Others suffered their combat wounds during World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Granada and Somalia. All those killed in action also receive Purple Hearts posthumously. There were 64 Purple Hearts given to active military personnel killed in the attack on the Pentagon.
Wroolie recently met with a lieutenant colonel and a major injured in the Sept. 11 attacks. And he said it created a different aspect of combat wounds suffered on home soil.
"It was a unique experience to sit and talk to them," he said. "It was a one-day ordeal that should not have happened -- but it did."
The Purple Heart was the first medal given to an enlisted soldier. The medal, which had the engraved words "For Military Merit," incorporates George Washington's profile. The Revolutionary War general and America's first president created the medal and it remains the oldest military decoration in the world in present use.
"It's a medal that no one wants to receive," Wroolie said.
He remembers well the day a Purple Heart was pinned on his hospital pillow in Vietnam.
Wroolie served with three different units during more than two tours in Vietnam -- the 102nd Combat Support Engineers, the 170th Assault Helicopter Company and B Troop 2/17 Air Calvary 101st Airborne Division.
He received several medals for service in Vietnam, including the Distinguished Flying Cross. The Purple Heart came for wounds suffered while he was an air crewman aboard a Low Observation Helicopter. He was medically retired as a staff sergeant.
Wroolie said he thinks the military order's work is more significant now than ever.
"I think it is important for people to realize there is a price to pay for this freedom we have," he said, noting people who now travel through airports realize that everything has a price. "And there have been some pretty high prices paid by a number of people I associate with."
Wroolie expects to travel 70 percent of the time during his service. Already trips are set to Charleston, S.C., back to Washington, D.C., for Veterans Day and on to Hawaii for Pearl Harbor Day.
"One thing just leads to another," he said. "It's something I left my employment to do and I'll do to the best of my ability."
National commander is a position Wroolie never expected to have until about five years ago.
"It started right in Brainerd and it's a position you need a lot of help from a lot of people to get to where you need to be," Wroolie said. "My wife and kids ... a lot of patriots have supported me above and beyond the call and it's paid off I guess."
Wroolie included his employer Anderson Brothers, Brainerd, where he worked as a division manager, on the list. Anderson Brothers provided time off so Wroolie could attend national events.
In Brainerd, Wroolie served as a regular volunteer and drove the Crow Wing County veteran's van from Brainerd to Minneapolis.
One of Wroolie's goals is to focus on what the organization needs to do for veterans and veterans' benefits. After working with the legislative process, Wroolie will meet with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton later this week to thank her for work done to dedicate a perpetual stamp bearing the Purple Heart's image.
The military order has 37,000 members. There are about 510,000 living Purple Heart recipients. The only requirement for membership is the Purple Heart and the wounds suffered in order to receive the medal.
Wroolie said the military order is only one of two in the country named after the medal. The other one is for the Medal of Honor.
"I think that has a very special meaning to it," he said. A benefit comes in the order's camaraderie and mutual understanding.
"You know they've been there and have done that and you have that mutual respect. We don't have any ranks within the order. Everyone is called a patriot."
After being in the nation's capital 30 to 40 times, Wroolie said the city with its national monuments is still awe-inspiring day or night.
The Washington High School graduate expects to put on the air miles traveling to the 50 continental states during his year of service as commander. Much of the work comes as public relations for the military order.
The Military Order of the Purple Heart is one of four veterans organizations that represent veterans at the Board of Veterans Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Wroolie and his wife, Mary Beth, have a combined family of three children, Dustin, Dawn and Niki.
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