A Mesa World War II veteran who had to wait 60 years to receive his Bronze Star was finally awarded Monday with the last of his medals - a Purple Heart.
M.L. Smelser, 84, known to his fellow soldiers as "The Arizona Kid," was awarded the decoration on Memorial Day in front of a crowd of about 100 at VFW Post 7968 in Apache Junction.
Young Marines saluted the soft-spoken veteran, who was joined by his wife, Joni; daughter, Teresa Cole of Utah; and local officials at the ceremony.
Smelser "and those of his generation will always hold a place in our hearts," said Post Chaplain Frank Page. "Their actions ... ensured the freedom of billions across the world."
Smelser earned his Purple Heart when he was thrown into the air after a large-caliber artillery round flew into the foxhole he was digging. His back was seriously injured, leaving him with a crooked spine and a lifetime of pain.
He was drafted into the Army in 1944 and earned his nickname as the only Arizona resident in his company.
While former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth helped him track down several medals nearly five years ago, Smelser has waited for his Purple Heart and medical benefits from the government. His family was unable to find his medical records, which are believed to have been lost in a fire. And when Smelser signed for his military discharge, he overlooked a line that said he didn't have any injuries.
Cole spent nearly four years working with the Pentagon to get officials to give her father the medal he had earned.
"I got mad because they wouldn't recognize him," Cole said. "But this day isn't about me; it's about him."
On the morning of Feb. 6, 1945, Smelser was digging a foxhole when a round hit the ground right in front of him.
"An explosion knocked me up in the air," Smelser said. "When I came down, I was near the hole, and I remember scratching for that hole."
His family hopes that being awarded the medal he has deserved for so many years will ease some of the pain.
"It's been a really long battle to get it," said the veteran's granddaughter, Killashandra Smelser, 22, "but I'm really happy he's getting it now."