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CSAF presents French medal to WWII Army vet, AF civilian

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Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein presents his challenge coin to Robert Van Wortman during a ceremony held at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 3, 2018. More than 70 years after helping to liberate France from Germany in World War II, Wortman received the French Legion of Honor for his heroic acts. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

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Robert Van Wortman smiles after receiving the French Legion of Honor presented by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein during a ceremony held at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 3, 2018. More than 70 years after helping to liberate France from Germany in World War II, Wortman received the medal for his heroic acts. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

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Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein presents and reads the French Legion of Honor citation to Robert Van Wortman during a ceremony held at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 3, 2018. More than 70 years after helping to liberate France from Germany in World War II, Wortman received the medal for his heroic acts. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Senior Airman Dennis Hoffman)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- At a ceremony overlooking the Department of Defense Warrior Games at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 2, 2018, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein presented the French Legion of Honor to a World War II Army veteran for his efforts to liberate Western Europe in 1945.

Robert Wortman was just 19 when he joined the army in 1944 and became a scout for the 3rd division 15th Infantry, which was quickly sent to the front lines and then behind enemy lines, crossing the Rhine River in the second wave. Days later, a surprise attack by German hold outs in Nuremberg wounded Wortman, forcing a leg amputation.

After spending three weeks recovering in a hospital in France, Wortman was flown home, but he did not let his wound slow him down. He went on to serve 30 years at McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, as an Air Force civilian employee, and celebrated his 92nd birthday day last month.

“All of us in the services today enjoy the trust and confidence of a very grateful nation. That grateful spirit is not all because of what we do, but it is in part due to the incredible legacy of passed on by [Wortman] and those of [he] served with, members of the greatest generation,” Goldfein said during the ceremony.

Despite his years of service, Wortman’s daughter-in-law, Ann Wortman believes this is his first medal ceremony. His purple heart and bronze star arrived at the hospital while he was recovering in 1945.

Ann began searching for the medal after her father-in-law heard about the French trying to contact WWII veterans who aided in that country’s liberation. The medal arrived in the mail in 2015, but there was never a formal presentation. As a civil servant herself, employed at the Air Force Academy, Ann started talking with Col. Gina Oliver, 2018 DOD Warrior Games director, about her father-in-law.

“After WWII there weren't these types of events and programs for disabled Veterans,” Ann said. “My family felt very honored and blessed by this presentation…Dad is very humble, which is why he really couldn't think of anything to say during the ceremony except he was speechless. Afterward, we could tell that he had a renewed sense of pride that all the sacrifice and difficulty as a result of his time in WWII and his injury from his service as a young man was all worth it.”

For Goldfein, it was a special honor to represent the Army, acknowledge the United States’ oldest allies, and pay tribute to a true hero.

“We hail from the Army Air Corps, so the United States Army is in our roots,” he said to the intimate crowd. “Today, when you look at the fight we are engaged in with violent extremism, you can’t look beyond France to find a better partner. They would not be standing shoulder to shoulder with us today had it not been for you and your brothers and sisters in arms did all those years ago for the liberation.”

The citation read, “Thanks to your courage and our American friends and allies, France and Europe have been living in peace for the past are decades….Created by Napoleon, it is the highest honor France can bestow for those that achieved remarkable deeds for France.”

When asked what the medal meant to him, Wortman uttered just one word.

“Everything,” he said.

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