Alvin Lawrence Alce was surrounded by family, from his wife and grown children to his 10-month-old grandson, when an Army general pinned to his shirt a Purple Heart medal this week.
The Vietnam War veteran had earned the honor more than a half century ago in Vietnam.
Alce, born and raised in Key West, was wounded at the Battle at Hamburger Hill. That’s a 3,000-foot mountain given the miserable nickname for the number of lives lost there within about 10 days in May 1969.
A year before Alce had been drafted into the Army. He was 18.
“It’d been raining every day and it was close fighting,” said Alce, 72. “It was rough.”
The bullets were relentless.
“Like bees chasing you,” he said.
Grenades would land near the U.S. soldiers, Alce said, and they’d pick them up and throw them back at the enemy troops.
“All you could do was keep pushing,” the veteran said of the battle, in a short interview Monday at the Harvey Government Center in Key West.
On Monday, Alce had to talk over people chatting around him, just after the medal presentation during a ceremony complete with a color guard, bugle call and speeches.
Those in attendance included high-ranking military, Key West Mayor Teri Johnston, Monroe County Mayor David Rice, county commissioner Holly Raschein and Key West City Commissioner Clayton Lopez.
“So proud of you,” Lopez told Alce with a handshake. “But I always have been.”
Alce wears three battle scars — one each on his back, hip and left arm — from May 18, 1969.
He was one of 372 Americans wounded at Hamburger Hill, where 72 died.
As Alce greeted friends, elected officials, military veterans and other well-wishers Monday, he offered a few times to show his back and arm scars to people. He would lift the shirttail of his light blue guayabera just a bit to show where the gunfire struck.
Monroe County officials on Monday didn’t offer an explanation for why Alce had to wait 53 years for the Purple Heart.
In 2019, the county’s Veterans Affairs department, led by Director Cathy Crane and Deputy Director James Carey, discovered Alce lacked a Purple Heart, which they knew he had clearly earned in Vietnam.
Alce already had a Vietnam Service Medal with three Bronze Service Stars, a Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm Device.
But the Purple Heart had never materialized for Alce, who was honorably discharged on Aug. 1, 1970, having served in the 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry, Americal Division and the 101st Airborne Division.
The Army announced Alce would receive the Purple Heart in an order on March 20, 2020. But that date coincided with the start of the pandemic shutdown.
Alce finally got the medal on Monday.
He made no complaint.
“It’s beautiful,” Alce said, of receiving the Purple Heart. “If I had to do it, I’d go again.”
A dozen members of the family attended the Purple Heart ceremony. At the center was Alvin Alce and his wife Dehavalyna Alce.
Alce didn’t make a speech at the ceremony, but his son Justin Alce addressed the crowd.
“At the age of 18, my dad didn’t have time to prepare for what he was about to go through,” Justin Alce said. “Even still, his faith in God and his family carried him through every battle he faced.”
Justin Alce said his father’s version of a college experience was walking point in Vietnam.
“There he learned faith,” Justin Alce said. “To trust God through all trials and tribulations. Even in the midst of pain and suffering, he believed and God saw him through it.”
Alce and his family are grieving.
Two days before Alce got his Purple Heart, a funeral and burial were held for his daughter Latisha Tiare Alce, 46, who was found beaten to death July 22 at the Stock Island home she shared with boyfriend Delmon Washington.
Washington, 44, was arrested the next day and charged with her murder. It was members of the Alce family who found the body.
Washington is in the county jail on Stock Island without bond.
“You are my favorite point man, Dad,” Justin Alce said from the lectern.
His father replied from his chair at the ceremony: “Thank you.”