Purple Heart recipients find fulfillment in giving backOct 27, 2023 04:16PM ● By Karin Hill
Steven Zerger, David Andrews and Michael Epper come from different generations, but all served their country and were wounded in battle—Zerger in Vietnam, Andrews and Epper in Afghanistan. In recognition of their injuries, these men were awarded a Purple Heart medal, given only to those injured or killed while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Although their stories during and after military service differ greatly, all have found satisfaction through membership in the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH). The group provides camaraderie and support to Purple Heart recipients and their families, but members quietly and consistently do good for many other veterans in the community.
BINGO WITH A PURPOSE
Zerger, 75, was serving in Vietnam when he caught two rounds from an AK-47 in his right leg during a ground attack on April 24, 1971.
“There were 28 of us in the ambush,” he said. “Four of us made it out.”
Zerger received his Purple Heart while recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He continued to serve in the Army until 1986, when he retired out of Fort Carson and settled in Pueblo.
In 1995, Zerger joined the local Purple Heart chapter and quickly got involved in its primary fundraising effort: running bingo games every Wednesday at Bingo World, 272 South Academy Blvd.
“I have severe PTSD, and it gives me a purpose to do something other than stay home all the time,” Zerger said. “It’s my way of paying back to all the veterans.”
Zerger is joined in his weekly volunteering at Bingo World by Andrews and other MOPH members. The chapter receives revenue from the games it sells, totaling at least $20,000 a year. These funds primarily go to veterans who need help with housing options, car repairs, service animals and many other needs.
“These are all grants; we don’t expect anything in return,” said Air Force veteran Michael Epper, 52, the chapter’s treasurer.
Epper received his Purple Heart for wounds sustained in Afghanistan on October 26, 2011. During a convoy mission, Epper’s truck was ambushed by insurgents, causing it to roll off the road. He was shot while trying to exit the vehicle. Later, while inside another truck in the convoy, that vehicle was also targeted and blown up.
Larry Hathaway, 74, a Vietnam Marine Corps veteran, is among the many members who prefer not to talk about their war wounds. He’d rather talk about the positive impact of organizations like MOPH on the community.
“Most Purple Heart recipients are very humble,” Zerger added. “It’s an award you don’t want to get, and most don’t want to talk about how they got it.”
SUPPORTING VETERANS IN CRISIS
George Washington instituted the Purple Heart award in 1782, and it was formally established by the U.S. War Department in 1932.
MOPH Commander David Andrews said he was blessed to serve with some true American heroes during some of the hardest fighting in the war on terrorism.
“The real heroes are the ones who weren’t fortunate enough to return home alive, and the families of the fallen and the wounded,” said Andrews, 52.
Andrews served over 21 years on active duty, with over nine years as a Navy Hospital Corpsman (including four years with Marine Corps infantry) and over 12 years in the Air Force. He deployed seven times in his career, including four combat tours to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and other countries in the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility.
“Three of my combat tours were with joint special operations, and my last tour—when I was wounded in action—was as a senior combat advisor to the Afghan National Police,” Andrews said.
After retiring due to his wounds, Andrews worked for the Department of Defense at the Pentagon and NORAD-USNORTHCOM. He also began helping veterans and their families in MOPH, and became president of the Remount Foundation, which helps wounded warriors and first responders recover from trauma through therapy involving horses.
Andrews also started two encore businesses: a barbecue seasoning company and a leadership consulting business.
His consulting business focuses on organizational culture and suicide prevention, which is an epidemic affecting many industries, including the military community.
He pointed out that suicide numbers among military veterans are highest for the 50-plus demographic. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states that the highest number of veteran suicides occurs among those aged 55 and older, even though overall suicide rates are highest for ages 18–34. This is because most veterans are older, with a median age of 65.
Andrews also speaks at conferences across the U.S. and internationally, particularly at veterinary conferences. He said that surprisingly, veterinarians face higher suicide rates compared to related professions, making his contributions to these conferences particularly valuable.
MOPH Chapter 423 was chartered in 1977 and is the largest in Colorado, with more than 400 members.
While some members are actively involved in the organization and contribute to its numerous charitable initiatives, such as supporting youth scholarship programs, presenting gifts to veterans in nursing homes, and helping with toy drives, each member’s level of engagement varies. The group relies on newer members to join its ranks so that its mission will be carried out for years to come.
At 41, John Isaac Reyes is one of the club’s “younger” members. He highlighted the strong sense of belonging within the group, emphasizing that there’s no other place to truly connect with others who experienced being wounded in combat.
“I saw a lot of my buddies get out of the service with no outlet,” said Reyes. “They felt lost, isolated and confused. So being in this chapter brings back that purpose, camaraderie, brotherhood and socializing with like-minded people.”
He added that newer veterans should put aside their fears and strongly consider getting connected.
Hathaway encourages younger veterans to dismiss any misconceptions or stereotypes associated with such organizations, like the belief that membership primarily consists of “old guys like me sitting around and drinking beer.” Because not the case.
Membership is also open to women. The chapter’s first female commander joined just a few years ago
Any Purple Heart recipients in Southern Colorado are invited to join MOPH Chapter 423. The chapter meets at 10:30 a.m. the second Saturday of every month at 2 Carson Circle in Fountain. For more information, call 719-800-1782, email [email protected] and visit or donate at moph423.org.