Late Riverhead veteran’s Purple Heart found after more than 20 years

A knock at the door Sunday night around 9:30 p.m. surprised Lori Riley. She had to wake up early for work the next morning and was getting ready for bed.

It was Karen Heppner, the funeral director at McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home, with some unexpected news. Ms. Riley racked her brain for what it could possibly be about. The funeral was paid for, she thought.

Ms. Heppner said she had something to tell her. And it would come as a shock.

Her husband’s Purple Heart had been found after more than 20 years missing.

Willie Riley, who died Dec. 17, 2016 at age 71, was a Vietnam veteran who earned the Purple Heart and four Bronze Stars for his service in the Army. He served from 1967 to 1969.

Ms. Heppner received a call Sunday night from a reporter in Illinois who relayed that the award was found in a safety deposit box that belonged to Mr. Riley’s late sister in East St. Louis. The box had gone unclaimed and was subject to be opened by the Illinois State Treasurer’s Office, Ms. Riley learned from the reporter, Eric Cox of KMOV St. Louis

“It’s incredible,” Ms. Riley said Monday morning. “I can’t believe it happened.”

“Me and the kids have just been crying,” Ms. Riley continued. “My husband wanted this so bad before he died.”

Mr. Riley moved to Riverhead in the 1970s and worked as a horse trainer at Big E Farm. He and Ms. Riley married in 1986. Two of Mr. Riley’s six children followed his footsteps into the armed services. His daughter, Heather Jackson, is in the Air National Guard and his son, Darien, is in the Marine reserves.

Ms. Jackson recently received an award of her own this past weekend, an Air Force Achievement medal, Ms. Riley said.

Ms. Riley had enlisted the help of Congressman Lee Zeldin’s office before her husband died to see if they could help in some way. They had helped obtain Mr. Riley’s military records, which were burnt in a fire in Chicago years ago, she said. She called the congressman’s office Monday morning to inform them of the latest development.

Mr. Riley had a saying: “I’m still livin’.” His wife described him as humble and quiet. He’d literally given someone the shirt off his back, she recalled. One time, he came home with no shoes after giving them to someone in need, she said.

“He was one of those nice people who had nothing bad to say about anybody,” she said. “He was a genuinely nice person. Whatever you needed, he’d help you in minute. He didn’t care who you were.”

Mr. Riley’s brother-in-law was presented with the Purple Heart Monday morning on the steps of town hall in East St. Louis.

The award is set to make its way to his wife this weekend. At 10 a.m. Saturday, Ms. Riley will be presented with her husband’s Purple Heart at Calverton National Cemetery.

“It just makes it complete for him,” Ms. Riley said. “It was like closure for him.”

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Photo caption: Willie Riley’s Purple Heart, earned for his service in Vietnam, was misplaced since the 1980s. (Courtesy photo)