Honoring Purple Heart recipients

Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Aviles and Capt. John Turner present Frank Spatuzzi with a gift.

Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Aviles and Capt. John Turner present Frank Spatuzzi with a gift. Photo courtesy of Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Aviles.


Story by Petty Officer 3rd Class Jasmine Mieszala


The U.S. Coast Guard has served in every major conflict since 1790, including the War of 1812, the Vietnam War, World War I and World War II. Many people have died or were injured in combat, and as a result, awarded the Purple Heart medal. However, only one name is recognized at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in Windsor, New York. That is, until now.

Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Aviles, the senior independent duty team leader of the Work-Life Service Center in Norfolk, Virginia, visited the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in September 2010 with his brother-in-law.

While walking around the exhibits, Aviles began to notice the Coast Guard wasn’t recognized. There were no plaques or monuments to physically show any member of the Coast Guard had ever received a Purple Heart.

“I looked in the Hall of Honor database and found only one Coast Guard name, Nathan Bruckenthal,” said Aviles.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan Bruckenthal, a damage controlman assigned to Tactical Law Enforcement Team South Detachment 403, was killed in action at the Khawr Al Amay oil terminal off the coast of Iraq on April 24, 2004, when the boat he and his team were intercepting exploded. Bruckenthal was the first Coast Guardsman killed in combat since the Vietnam War. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart posthumously.

“Our brothers in blue paid the ultimate sacrifice,” said Aviles. “I felt it was necessary to find these people. I felt compelled.”

Master Chief Michael Aviles meets with Dr. William Theisen about Aviles' Purple Heart Project.

Master Chief Michael Aviles meets with Dr. William Theisen about Aviles’ Purple Heart Project. U.S. Coast Guard photo by PA3 Nate Littlejohn

Aviles began what has become a four-year project to compile a list of as many Purple Heart recipients in the Coast Guard as he could find.

To aid in his search, Aviles enlisted the help of Dr. William Thiesen, the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area historian.

“Dr. Thiesen helped me find people to contact and ideas to research,” said Aviles. “We started reaching out to councils and national groups to help us locate names.”

Since beginning the project in September 2010, Aviles has been able to research and add nearly 1,500 names to the list of Purple Heart recipients. Each name has to be verified with paper documentation or historical photos.

“As I started learning more about these people, they weren’t just names anymore,” said Aviles. “They were people. You learn about who they used to be. This project became something I couldn’t just stop. I had to finish it.”

Though the project is coming to an end, Aviles has made memories that will last a lifetime.

“I received an email from the American Patriot Program in 2011,” said Aviles. “They work with the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball to honor Purple Heart recipients with a special award and gift packages. They said they had never received a nomination for a Coast Guard Purple Heart recipient before. They were looking to honor someone at a baseball game.

“I had recently come across Lt. j.g. Frank Spatuzzi, a Purple Heart recipient with a very interesting back story. He had the chance to sign a contract with major league baseball, but instead, he chose to become an officer in the Coast Guard and fight in World War II.”

Spatuzzi was awarded the Purple Heart after suffering injuries when a suicide kamikaze plane hit the vessel he was on. Spatuzzi was hospitalized for two years following the attack.

“He was able to throw the first pitch at a Tampa Rays game, “ said Aviles. “It meant so much to me that he had his moment on the baseball field. He got to throw his first pitch. About four months later, he passed away. It was a nice recognition for him and his family. He finally got to play ball.”

Once the project is completed, the names of the Coast Guard recipients of the Purple Heart will be loaded into the database at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor for anyone to access.

“This is for those who stood the watch before us and those who will stand the watch after us,” said Aviles. “This is my way of giving back to our service.”