TULSA, Okla. – Given the choice, World War II veteran Phillip Coon probably wouldn't want the formality and fuss of being honored on some military base with men and women standing at attention, dressed in full regalia — even if it was with a fistful of long-overdue medals he waited decades to receive.
So it's fitting the awards were presented to the humble Tulsa-area man Monday evening during an informal ceremony in a waiting area at the Tulsa International Airport, with family and fellow veterans in attendance and little pomp and circumstance.
There, the 94-year-old received the Prisoner of War Medal, Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge from Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Oklahoma Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs. Coon and his son, Michael, had just returned from a trip to Japan that was aimed at promoting an understanding and healing between that country and the U.S.
The two dozen or so people in attendance applauded wildly after the medals were presented to Coon, who was seated in a wheelchair. He lifted his ball cap in recognition, exposing a shock of silver hair.
"I've been blessed to come this far in life," he said, a tear streaming down one cheek. "I thank the Lord for watching over me."
Aragon said many veterans like Coon were more focused on reuniting with their families than chasing after military ribbons once they returned home after the war — and rightfully so.
Coon, who now lives in Sapulpa in northeastern Oklahoma, served as an infantry machine gunner in the Army. He survived a POW labor camp and the brutal Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942, the 65-mile trek the Japanese military forced tens of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers to complete with little food or water in blazing heat. As many as 11,000 soldiers died along the way.
Why Coon never got his medals is unclear but not an uncommon occurrence in the military.
"He was entitled to the medals but never received them," said Jake Heisten, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, whose office contacted the military three weeks ago about the missing medals. "Unfortunately, our office comes across instances where members do not actually receive the awards they are eligible for or have already been awarded."
Kay Guynes, president of Rolling Thunder Oklahoma, a national advocacy group for POWs and those missing in action, said some people "choose to put a period at the end of things" after veterans return home from combat. Guynes, who attended the ceremony for Coon, said those same individuals should instead focus on ensuring medals and other honors go to those who deserve them.
Tulsa veteran David Rule, who served in the Vietnam War, helped the Coon family in its push to find out why the medals were never issued. For the past 10 years or so, Rule has helped recognize about 150 area veterans by memorializing their names, ranks and branches of service on granite plaques that are presented to them and their families.
"It's not just (Coon's) story. Every one of these men are special," Rule said earlier Monday. "I have a passion for these servicemen. They just sacrificed so much. It doesn't matter to me whether they were a cook or a four-star general, just for them to get this million-dollar smile on their face when they know they aren't forgotten."