Restored with honor: Williamstown vet Britton finally receives Purple Heart

Above left, Gilbert “Grover” Britton receives a hero’s welcome as he enters the Williamstown American Legion hall on Tuesday; at right, U.S. Navy Commander Dan Toolan trades salutes with Britton after bestowing the 92-year-old veteran’s long-overdue Purple Heart.

WILLIAMSTOWN, N.Y. — “Sir, we owe you an award.”

It was the line Gilbert “Grover” Britton, a Navy veteran who served during World War II, had been waiting to hear for a whole year.

The Williamstown native was awarded the Purple Heart commendation Tuesday at the Williamstown American Legion, and the veteran was elated and humble.

“I can’t believe this happened. I am so glad,” Grover, 92, told a crowd of close friends and active servicemen during the ceremony. “When I went off to help save this country, I did this along with everybody else to keep America free. I was 17 years old, I quit high school and joined the Navy.”

The Purple Heart medal is one of the oldest decorations granted to members of the military, and is awarded, in the name of the president, to any member of the armed forces of the United States who has been wounded or killed.

Navy Cmdr. Dan Toolan delivered the award to Grover, who served aboard the U.S.S. Sierra and achieved the rank of Electrician Mate First Class before retiring. Toolan recounted the veteran’s main accomplishments, which included the replacement of a five-inch, 127-millimeter gun mount aboard the U.S.S. California battleship, and rebuilding the starter stern of a U.S. destroyer ship.

“On behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation, we present you with your Purple Heart,” Toolan said, shaking Grover’s hand.

U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi, who represents New York’s 22nd congressional district, including the northern end of Oswego County, also awarded Grover with an American flag flown on Capitol Hill.

“This is a very special day as we honor Grover for his great sacrifice to our nation,” Brindisi said. “What makes our country the greatest in the world is that we have young men and women who have stepped up time and time again to answer the call and defend our freedom and our democracy.”

Members of the Legion’s post in Williamstown celebrated the achievement of a lifetime, telling tales of Grover’s dedication to his community, and highlighted the importance of holding the ceremony despite the adverse conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Grover is a well-respected individual. We have a Memorial Day parade and he likes to walk it up and down at his age. He still helps his community as much as he can,” said Barry Leeman, a Marine Corps veteran and financial officer at the Williamstown American Legion. “Everyone loves and respects Grover for what he has done.”

“This is important for Grover to be recognized for what he has done and he has gone through,” Leeman said. “We have taken all the precautions. Everyone is wearing a mask and we have limited the crowd-size. This causes a lot of difficulties.”

The hardest part, Leeman added, was encouraging a low turnout for a man who is seen as a pillar of his community.

“He is a popular guy,” he continued. “Everybody knows him and he is a well-respected gentleman.”

Despite the ceremony, Leeman lamented the state in which some veterans like Grover are awarded one of the highest commendations celebrated by their country.

“He got his Purple Heart in the mail last year,” he said. “To me that is a slap in the face to receive the medal in the mail last year. He never really got the recognition he deserves.”

Grover’s family also underscored the magnitude of the moment.

“It is a very emotional moment,” said Teresa Reid, Grover’s daughter. “My dad has waited a long time for this to happen and my dad is the most humble person. I am so excited and thrilled this opportunity is happening for him. At the age 92, it should have happened a long time ago.”

Waiting for the ceremony hasn’t been easy, Reid said.

“He was wondering if it wasn’t a hoax of some kind,” she said regarding the medal being mailed to Grover’s address. “We thought it was kind of dishonorable for him to get it in the mail and get no recognition for it.”

Now a decorated veteran, Reid said Grover will go back to one of his main hobbies.

“He is a very avid hunter. He still hunts to this day, he loves hunting and the outdoors,” she said. “I am thrilled to be here and that people can come out and watch this ceremony. I would be here no matter what and it makes my heart very happy.”

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