JOHNSTOWN-After waiting more than 40 years to receive official recognition for heroic military service, Joseph Fonda had a tough time waiting one more night.
"He couldn't sleep at all," said his wife, Charlene, with a laugh.
On Friday morning, Fonda was finally honored. At the Fulton County Office Building, U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty presented a Bronze Star Medal to Fonda as his family watched with tears in their eyes.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty presents the Bronze Star Medal to Joseph F. Fonda in Johnstown on Friday. The Montgomery County man served heroically in the Vietnam War in 1967 and ’68.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Relatives of Joseph Fonda listen Friday as U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty presents the Glen resident with the Bronze Star at McNulty’s office in Johnstown.
"It is my honor to make this presentation," McNulty said. "The Bronze Star Medal is presented to very few individuals."
The act of Congress that established the medal says it recognizes "heroic or meritorious achievement or service ... in connection with military operations against an armed enemy."
Fonda, who grew up in the village that shares his name, went to Vietnam on July 20, 1967, as part of an infantry unit. He was 17 years old.
"I volunteered to draft, and I volunteered to go to Vietnam. After that, I learned not to volunteer anymore," he said, laughing.
On Nov. 7, 1967, 4th Spc. Fonda's unit was stationed between a cemetery and a bridge in a Vietnamese village.
"When the engineers left it that night, it kept getting blown up, so we were platoons on it every night to guard it so it got built all the way," Fonda said.
Fonda's platoon was attacked. His men moved to go past the bridge, but Fonda stayed behind to try and protect them.
"They were doing good, but I just figured that, to get it so those guys could get out of there, I had to stay there and give them cover fire until they got past the bridge," Fonda said.
Fonda remained at the site and used up all of his ammunition in order to defend his position, throwing grenades behind him to try and defend his men. He also ordered his men to evacuate a wounded soldier that night.
He left Vietnam in July 1968. Years later, Fonda had settled in Glen. His old lieutenants encouraged him to try and pursue the award. Fonda thought paperwork detailing his accomplishment that could have made him eligible for the award was lost in the Tet Offensive.
"All I know is I didn't get it," he said.
McNulty aide Terri Jasewicz said she helped Fonda put in a request for the award through the National Personnel Records Center, but she said the process was "very time consuming."
"They needed more information. They went through that four or five times," she said.
Finally, earlier this week, Jasewicz received a call that the request was finally successful. She called Fonda immediately.
Preparations were made quickly, and McNulty, D-Green Island, was able to come and present the award before he leaves office Jan. 3.
"Usually, it isn't in a circumstance like this, when the individual being honored should have been presented with the award years ago," McNulty said.
Thankfully, Fonda said, he has family to share in his joy.
"It's kind of more scary now, when you think about it, than when I done it, because you're younger, and you just go for it," he said. "Later on in life, when you have kids, grandkids, you start to think about it, thinking about the guys that died that don't have what I got. That's the sad part."
Fonda said he has recently noticed others taking stock of sacrifices soldiers make.
On Thursday, as he was getting a haircut in Scotia before his big day, his barber noticed his jacket emblazoned with a Purple Heart logo. The two got to talking about the war, and when Fonda went to pay for his trim, his young barber told him that the service was free, thanks to the service he had provided for his country.
"It's like everyone's starting to realize something, getting more patriotic," Fonda said. "And that makes me feel good. People are starting to recognize what people do in the military."
He said he would be able to move on emotionally from receiving such an honor .
"It means a lot to me, but it's not going to change my life, I know that," Fonda said.
Still, Charlene Fonda said her husband might finally get some peace.
"He's very deserving of it," she said, dabbing away tears. "He's waited a long, long time. I hope this puts some of it to rest."
Zach Subar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org