CRYSTAL LAKE – For the small fraternity of Purple Heart recipients, the award is often seen as a symbol of courage and pride.
But for Lakewood’s Pat Fimon, the medal was nothing more than a trinket in the bottom of a cardboard box in an attic. For decades he buried it as far as he could. His parents died without ever knowing he received the honor.
Fimon served as a machine gunner in the Marines during the Vietnam War on two tours. The last thing he wanted to do was to revisit the memories he had from 1967 to 1971.
“I hated the Marine Corps. It ruined my life,” Fimon said. “May 28. I didn’t go to work on that day for 30 years for a reason.”
But now Fimon is proud of the Marines and his medal. He donated it to Brink Street Restaurant & Bar, where it is displayed prominently behind the bar. It has helped bolster donations for the restaurant’s Toys for Tots drive and, more importantly to Fimon, brought awareness to the services that restored his life.
Three years ago, Fimon met people such as Ted Biever at the Woodstock Armory and counselors through Veterans Affairs who helped him realize there was a better way to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder and receiving help was OK.
The services even saved his life after a doctor’s visit revealed he had cancer, which was attributed to Agent Orange exposure during the war. He will begin radiation treatment next year.
“I was angry all the time. I would have nightmares four or five times a week and sleep only two or three hours at a time,” Fimon said. “Now it’s down to maybe one nightmare a week and I can sleep. I’m getting a lot better. I’m not there, but I’m getting better.”
The biggest help has been a weekly meeting for veterans with PTSD at 7 p.m. every Thursday at the American Legion in Algonquin. He said there are no war stories allowed, and everyone is able to work through issues in a more comfortable setting than the meetings he attended shortly after he came back from the war, when veterans were more interested in bragging about body counts.
Fimon said he still sees too many older veterans who believe they do not need help, which is why he hopes the Purple Heart display can start conversations and his story can inspire even one person to use the resources.
But it is today’s military he gives all the credit to for the treatment his generation can now receive.
“When I got out, if you got shot, you got shot,” Fimon said. “I give all the credit to the young guys coming home now. They don’t take that crap. They’re fighters. It’s because of them I get ‘thank you for your service’ now and not the hatred we got when we came home.”
Kim Spence, manager of Brink Street Restaurant & Grill, said the Purple Heart has inspired more people to give to the annual Toys for Tots drive as both toy and money donations are up and more keep coming in.
But it is the message it has for veterans and the community that is truly special.
“The day he gave us the Purple Heart, grown men had tears in their eyes,” Spence said. “A lot of the veterans come here and hang out, and I think it really hit home for everyone that day. It’s just an absolute honor for us.”