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Duluth Army National Guardsman receives long-overdue medals

Pfc. Army Cavalry Scout Joel Heller (left) of Duluth receives the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal from U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in Duluth on Wednesday afternoon. This is one of three medals and a ribbon he was awarded through the congressman’s office and the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 2
Noah Heller, 8, of Duluth proudly displays two of the three medals his dad, Joel Heller of Duluth, received from U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in Duluth on Wednesday afternoon during a ceremony at the congressman's Duluth office. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

Joel Heller was celebrating his grandfather’s birthday on Sept. 11, 2001. Two days later, the Army National Guardsman had been activated and was patrolling in “full battle rattle” at Duluth International Airport.

“In the blink of an eye, my life changed,” he said.

Heller headed to Fort Knox for basic training in 1996. In the following decade, he served as a Cavalry Scout in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart.

It took another decade to find out that he hadn’t received medals and ribbons honoring his service. That was remedied Wednesday as Heller received three medals and a ribbon with help from U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan and Sherry Rodriguez, director of St. Louis County Veterans Services. Heller contacted Nolan’s office last month seeking help in receiving the medals from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

It likely was a “clerical error” that caused the delay, Heller said, adding, “It gets forgotten about” when service members are discharged from the military.

After the ceremony in Nolan’s Duluth office, Heller was in disbelief that a guy from the Central Hillside neighborhood had a U.S. congressman pinning a military medal on him.

“This is just icing on the cake to me,” Heller said.

Heller also got a kick out of retired Col. Ronald Hein of Duluth presenting one of the medals because a colonel showing up for a private first class was a rare sight.

It wasn’t about the medals, he said, but about pride in his experience.

“I’m proud. I’m proud of my service. I’m proud I served my country when they needed me the most,” he said.

Heller, the son of a former Marine who served in Vietnam, said he was glad his 8-year-old son Noah Heller was able to see him receive the medals. It was an emotional day for Noah as he stood by his dad’s side, tears coming to his eyes as his dad talked about his service. Noah had been proudly telling his second-grade classmates about his dad’s medals for days leading up to the ceremony.

“My son got to see this. … He got to see my sacrifice I had to go through,” Joel Heller said.

Heller’s mom, Corrine Heller, was among the crowd of family and friends watching the ceremony. She was proud of both her sons who have served in the military, but it was hard to see them go overseas.

“I don’t wish that on anybody,” she said after the ceremony.

Heller received the National Defense Service Medal, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal and the Army Service Ribbon.

The last medal Heller received was the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal as Nolan noted that it’s the medal that soldiers value the most. The medal is the “cream of the cream” because it’s only given to a small group of servicemembers who served in locations where combat ribbons don’t apply, Heller explained. It’s a medal that will give him “street cred” among veterans.

He’s proud of his service, but he lost friends overseas and still is losing friends, with six of them committing suicide in the past eight years, he said.

“I have side effects of my service, but that’s the price we have to pay when we put on the uniform,” he said.

He dreams of a day when combat medals no longer will be needed.

“I hope these are the last medals anyone has to receive,” he said.