By GENE WARNER
When Michael Attardo shipped off to Vietnam in January 1967, his mother vowed to attend Mass every day if he returned home safe and sound.
Attardo was seriously wounded in a mine explosion in Vietnam, but he did return home in one piece. His mother, Josephine, kept her word, going to Mass every day until she was struck by a car and seriously injured at age 86.
So when Attardo, now 69, recently learned that he would receive his long-overdue Purple Heart, he chose to have the brief ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 15, the seventh anniversary of his mother’s death at age 93.
“I was my mother’s boy,” Attardo explained. “She was the driving force and faith that got me through Vietnam. To me, it’s even more meaningful to have this on the [anniversary] of her passing. It’s almost in honor of her.”
Attardo, stationed with the Army’s First Air Cavalry in An Khe, Vietnam, was flown in with his team to LZ English landing zone, which came under hostile fire on May 30, 1967.
“We were flown in, we were securing the area, and we were ambushed,” he said of the mine explosion that sent shrapnel ripping into both legs.
Doctors feared he had a severed artery in his right leg. He was flown to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where he underwent surgery. Hospitalized for a couple of months, he later was sent to Japan and then South Korea, where he served as a colonel’s driver.
In the late summer of 1967, he was given his Purple Heart certificate during a company formation in Korea.
But no actual Purple Heart. He had to wait more than 45 years.
Until Attardo and his close friend, former Buffalo Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, ran into a staff member for Rep. Brian Higgins and told him about the never-issued Purple Heart.
That sent Higgins working with the Defense Department to get the Purple Heart in Attardo’s hands.
“Mike Attardo credits the military for teaching him to serve, something he continued after he returned to Buffalo,” Higgins said during the brief ceremony Saturday afternoon in Attardo’s store, Get Dressed, on Elmwood Avenue.
Attardo, the founder of Forever Elmwood, talked about the deeper meaning of the Purple Heart in an interview before the ceremony.
“It makes me realize that I’m not that 24-year-old kid anymore,” Attardo said. “Even though it was the worst experience of my life, it also was one of the best experiences of my life. It made me who I am.
“When I founded Forever Elmwood [in the early 1990s], that was the infantry man in me. That was the grunt in me. The general mood of the city was pretty negative. It was quite a battle.”
Attardo also saw some special meaning in the timing of the ceremony, one day after the horrific mass shooting in the Connecticut school.
“For every lunatic like that, people like myself have to spread the word that thousands and thousands of people served and helped their country,” he said. “We’re really a great country and a great people.”
Attardo ended the ceremony with a toast, to his “most unique set of friends” and to the city where he lives, before concluding his tribute with four words: “And to my mother.”
Everyone clinked glasses.