AJ Cruce was on an ambush mission in Vietnam in 1967 when a B-40 rocket shattered against a nearby tree. He and his commanding officer were sprayed with shrapnel from the blast. The two men were immediately medevaced from the jungle on the border of Cambodia where they were stationed.

The adrenaline that kicked in and a shot of morphine helped kill any pain. Cruce said at the time he knew he wasn’t going to die from his wounds.

“I was injured enough to go to the hospital,” he said. “My side was peppered with metal.”

While recovering, Cruce was told he was to be given the Purple Heart. He received the medal when he arrived at his next duty station.

A few years ago, Cruce found out there was a date set to honor his own experience, and that of nearly two million other veterans and serving members of the armed forces. He said Purple Heart Day does not seem to be a widely recognized occasion just yet.

The Purple Heart Foundation reports the holiday was first observed on Aug. 7, 2014. The date was chosen to mark when Gen. George Washington created the Badge of Military Merit during the Revolutionary War, which signified “being wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces,” according to the Purple Heart Foundation.

The badge was renamed the Purple Heart  in 1932, because of the colored fabric used to make the original.

Cruce joined the Army right out of high school. His girlfriend was pregnant, he was broke, and his best friend Jerry Linenkugel said he would sign up too. They were “basically in the same boat,” he said, although his childhood companion didn’t have a baby on the way.

“I like to say, ‘I went to the University of Vietnam,’” Cruce said with a laugh.

The “buddy system” allowed the two to go through basic and advanced training together. The friends were eventually separated when Linenkugel determined he wanted to be an officer. Cruce went on to spend 14 months in war-torn Vietnam in the infantry.

Cruce recalls Vietnam as a beautiful part of the world. He went back in 2011, which turned out to be “the best vacation I ever had in my life.” On the same trip, he went to Laos and China, where he ended up meeting his wife, who is Chinese. She was taking a tour in Beijing’s Forbidden City, and proceeded to smile and nod politely while he introduced himself.

Eventually he figured out they didn’t speak the same language. Cruce said he had been a bachelor for 19 years, and did not think he would remarry as a conscious choice.

Ever since his time in Vietnam, Cruce has been on the move. He and his company were let out on R&R every 75 days while on duty. Every opportunity was taken to visit a different country. Relocation didn’t stop when he left the Army in 1969.

Cruce recalls his return from Vietnam. He said it “was pretty disgusting because everyone here hated you.” That year he started at North Seattle Community College. He transferred after moving to Monroe, and received his associate of arts degree from Everett Community College.

From there he went into construction. The path sent him all over the world. The line of work demands flexibility — “you always work yourself out of the job,” he said

Cruce spent many of those years as a member of different unions. He first started up with the Washington sheet metal workers union, followed by a stint as a pipe welder in Saudi Arabia. He spent time in South America working as a manager of a gold mining company, and when he returned to Washington he spent some time at Cadman Sand and Gravel. At 62, he retired from the operating engineers union as a crane operator. 

Cruce picked up an interest in dealing antiques as a hobby 10 years ago. He now has a section to sell his findings at the Junk in the Ol’ Trunk store, which he mans about once a month.

Cruce said everyone who comes back from combat has some lasting effects. Some people are severely damaged by war. Others, such as himself, are able to get on with their lives for the most part, he said.

“Everyone goes in innocent and comes out traumatized to some degree,” he said.

When Cruce was in the service, he said, the U.S. did a good job training troops for the extreme situations they would face. He can’t speak to how that process is now, because the armed forces have changed since he was on active duty. However, there is no amount of instruction for the fear that will be felt, he said.

“They can’t prepare you for something like that,” he said. “The first time you’ve killed someone, you know, it’s pretty scary.”

Cruce said he has recovered from his physical wounds from Vietnam. There was some metal left in his body after he exited the hospital. It likely was eventually completely absorbed and dissipated. He said he hasn’t felt the effects of the injuries for more than 20 years.

“In fact, looking back on all this, it’s as if it wasn’t me – it was somebody else,” he said.

Not everything may have healed, however.

Recently undiagnosed, unrelated health issues have been ailing Cruce. He is in the middle of testing, but there is some suspicion it could be from dormant effects of agent orange, the herbicide sprayed to combat the dense foliage in Vietnam. He has also suffered through four bouts of malaria since his initial contraction of the illness while he was in the country.

One positive that came from his experience almost 40 years ago was the free health care he was given for the rest of his life, he said. Cruce added many of those services have been compromised by political decisions made throughout the years.

Cruce said he keeps his Purple Heart and his other medals in a drawer at home. He does meet up with the men from his company regularly for gatherings and reunions, and talks to them on a monthly basis.

Cruce said he would like to see more people observe Purple Heart Day. He said he sees the honor as representative of the people who truly put their lives on the line for their country.

“Freedom doesn’t come cheap, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly either,” he said.