By Brian Good, Diversity Inc
It took nearly eight decades, but former Army Private Osceola “Ozzie” Fletcher is finally getting his well-deserved Purple Heart for valor and service in World War II and the Battle of Normandy. The obstacle that held back one of the oldest and most prestigious recognitions given to U.S. military veterans for an unfathomable 77 years? Racism.
Harmeet Kaur of CNN reported on Fletcher’s Purple Heart ceremony and the long journey of receiving his earned recognition.
“Shortly after D-Day in 1944, Fletcher was in the back of a vehicle delivering supplies to Allied troops who were off the coast of France when he and his fellow service members were hit by a German missile,” Kaur reported. “The driver was killed, and Fletcher was left with a large gash on his head. Fletcher’s wound from that incident and others should have earned him a Purple Heart. But as was the case for many other Black Americans in the military, he was denied the honor due to racism.”
“The problem was that the Black soldiers were considered injured and an injury wasn’t considered an incidence of Purple Heart,” Army Private Osceola “Ozzie” Fletcher’s daughter Jacqueline Streets said. “The White soldiers were considered wounded.”https://t.co/NaunmMIa0k
— CNN (@CNN) June 23, 2021
The wrong was finally righted on June 18 when Fletcher was recognized for his service in Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York. A number of military officials and other leaders from the Army gathered together at the ceremony to praise Fletcher for his service and acknowledge the decades-long injustice he had endured.
“Today, we pay long-overdue tribute for the sacrifices he made to our nation and for free people everywhere,” U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said at the ceremony.
Fletcher took the delay in stride, joking to the general: “It’s about time.”
Fletcher’s daughter Jacqueline Streets was more direct. Following the event, she explained to CNN that, for decades, the military often classified injuries for Black and white soldiers differently; Black soldiers were “injured” whereas white soldiers were “wounded” in battle.
The distinction of soldier status is essential because only “wounded” soldiers met the criteria for a Purple Heart. Kaur writes that a soldier’s wound “must have resulted from either an enemy or hostile act or friendly fire, it must require treatment by a medical officer, and it must be documented in the soldier’s medical record.”
“Black soldiers were [typically] considered injured, and an injury wasn’t considered an incidence for a Purple Heart,” Streets said, further noting that Black soldiers were generally “patched back up” and sent back out into the field.
According to Kaur, “for decades, [Fletcher] rarely ever spoke of his service in World War II. Upon his return to the U.S., he went on to work as a high school teacher, as a sergeant for the New York Police Department and as a community relations specialist in the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.”
When Fletcher took a trip back to Normandy in the 90s, his opinion on wanting recognition began to change, especially for what he had gone through.
“It really hit him that he wanted to be heard,” Streets said. “He wanted the truth to be known. He wanted to be validated and acknowledged.”
After returning home from his Normandy trip, Fletcher began speaking more about his experiences, detailing the prejudice and racism he and other Black soldiers encountered from white soldiers and talking about how he never got his Purple Heart.
His daughter empathized with his pain and began what was ultimately a seven-year process of talking with friends, relatives and military officials about what could be done. She didn’t have much success “until a group of filmmakers behind the documentary Sixth of June read about her father’s story and got involved.”
With that team working on her family’s behalf, things began to move faster. Kaur reported that in April 2021, “the U.S. Army announced that Fletcher, along with former warrant officer Johnnie Jones, would finally receive the Purple Hearts they had earned so long ago.”
The SBA had the honor to be present today as the U.S. Army awarded the Purple Heart to 99-year old WWII Vet & Ret NYPD Sgt Osceola ‘Ozzie’ Fletcher.
Fletcher received the Purple Heart 76 years after being wounded during the Battle of Normandy.
He is a true American Hero! pic.twitter.com/N6R9L45v9i
— SBA (@SBANYPD) June 18, 2021
In a military press release announcing the newly approved Purple Hearts, Lt. Col. Scott Johnson, the Army Human Resources Command’s chief of awards and decorations, acknowledged the decades-long disservice to both veterans, saying, “these men have the scars and stories that are hard to ignore.”
When Streets broke the news to Fletcher that he would finally be getting his Purple Heart. he replied with a matter-of-factly, “good,” and left it at that.
Never one to make a big deal of his emotions, Streets said she thought “it was an amazing weight off of his shoulders to finally be validated, to finally have his story out there.” That being said, Streets also noted that there are likely more Black soldiers like her father, “who have the same story and were never acknowledged.”