By Lisa Shrewsberry
Ray Roop fought for freedom. Now 90 and facing the end of his life, he had lost an important emblem of his fight, proof of the most valorous accomplishment marking his years on earth — his Purple Heart award.
Like a single piece of an intricate puzzle, the heart-shaped merit for being wounded in action was what the Roop family counted on to complete the military uniform Ray will wear for his final farewell. Being buried with the full distinction of having risked life and limb defending one’s country is the most respectable send-off they can fathom for the man who has earned their deepest respect.
Ray received his Purple Heart for injury sustained to his arm as a front rifleman during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in 1945, what was considered the largest naval battle of World War II, and possibly the largest in history.
Following his honorable discharge from the armed services in 1945, Ray enjoyed distinction in civilian life, known mainly for his perfectionism in auto body repair and restoration.
“He has all kinds of certificates from when he was a body man. Everybody knew him on account of he worked on their car. He didn’t turn a job loose until it was perfect,” describes wife Ruth Roop.
Ruth, married to Ray for 70 years, now sleeps on a couch in front of Ray’s hospital bed in the living room inside their home by the Guyandotte River, Wyoming County.
“It hasn’t always been a smooth road, but if anybody says they never had tough times, they’re not telling the truth,” Ruth says with a smile. Her place is as well-kept as if she were 30, not 88. “I held the sheet rock up for him,” the spry octogenarian recalls, telling of how she and Ray constructed their comfortable home together.
The Roops are always together.
Whenever Ray receives respite at Hospice of Southern West Virginia, tells nurse Joanne Laforme, Mrs. Roop accompanies. “We’re as worried about her as we are about him. But she gets around well,” says Joanne.
If she is away for a time, Ray musters up his strength to call out for her, “Ruth, Ruth!” She is never far behind his call.
Ray has mostly stopped talking over the last year, giving in to his age and not to any ailment in particular. The cadence of his breath provides the backbeat to the recollections of his life that presently fill the room. He lays listening, his eyes blue and alert. Ruth faithfully keeps watch beside. “I hear every grunt he makes,” she says.
As best as Ruth can tell it was dishonorable action from a person who, under the guise of helping the family, took Ray’s original award from him. Ruth, as sharp as any half her age, remembers her husband’s stories of how his arm was sewn back on and sterilized maggots were used for wound debridement.
“They kept the infection out. That’s how they saved his arm.”
Ruth, too, was deeply hurt by the loss of the medal. She of all people knew how important it was to her husband.
She immediately notified local authorities about the missing award, $3,000 in stolen checks and about whom she suspected as thief. From what she understands, the person hasn’t been prosecuted. Financing a drug addiction, Ruth believes, is what compelled the alleged perpetrator to take leave of conscience and to steal the award and the couple’s money.
“Not that I hate for it, because I can’t be a Christian and hate. I pray for (the person) every night,” she says.
When Hospice of Southern West Virginia Social Worker Melissa Perry first learned of the missing award from Ruth, she knew she had to do something to help. She contacted the West Virginia Department of Veterans Assistance and discovered the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an organization for the men and women who have received the Purple Heart medal. They responded to Melissa’s story by promptly issuing Ray another medal in April 2012.
Melissa remembers Ray being particularly alert the day she brought his heart back home.
“When I brought (the medal), he said to his wife, ‘Ruth! Get that girl a hot dog and a Coke.’” She says it was his way of thanking her, of acknowledging the resolution to the quiet blow he had sustained in losing something that signified so much.
There are secrets Ray will take to the grave about his time spent in battle. Throughout his life, on occasion, he’d lose the grip on the veil he had shrouding those memories. “He’d go out on the porch and cry like a baby and you wouldn’t know what he was crying about,” says Ruth.
Melissa adds that many veterans come out of war with a measure of post-traumatic stress disorder that they carry with them their whole lives, making any acknowledgment of their contributions particularly critical touchstones.
Still waters run as deep as the Guyandotte is wide inside Ray’s heart of flesh. Ray and Ruth have survived a daughter, Rachel, who passed away from an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis when she was 55.
“We lost a grandson, too,” says Ruth, painfully recalling an accident on Tracy’s Mountain that took a young life.
Jimmy, the Roop’s son, keeps a close eye on his parents, living about 15 minutes away from them. He remembers his dad as an honorable man who taught him right from wrong, and as someone who attached meaning to things earned, who appreciated what he’d worked hard for.
“His boat from 1962 is out in the garage. It looks like a new one. Everything he had he always put it in the box it came in and kept it. He took pride in his things and took care of them.”
Jimmy, too, noticed his dad was deeply affected when it was discovered his original Purple Heart award was gone. When Hospice presented his reissued one, both of them teared up.
“He has always had a sense of pride in being a veteran,” explains Ruth, recalling conversations he’d have with a close friend who was also in the service. “When they’d get together, we were lucky if we got a word in.”
“You hear that, Ray?” she asks, approaching Ray’s bed. “They’re talking about your award. You’re going to be in the paper. You’re going to be famous.”
Ray smiles and strengthens himself enough to respond. “Congratulations…” he says with a grin.