TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — When the United States ramped up military involvement in Vietnam in the early 1960s, Stephen Nemeth was barely shaving.
The Tampa resident, now 78, was only 19 when he was sent into combat and never thought he would make it home alive after daily, deadly battles.
“[I was almost killed] seven or eight times.” Nemeth said. “If everyone knew what we went through.”
During 16 combat missions, Nemeth earned several medals, including the Purple Heart, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Presidential Unit Citation. The medals did not arrive until last month.
“I cried,” his wife Ann Nemeth said when asked about opening the box that held the commendations. “He cried.”
The delay started during Nemeth’s seven years in the Marines after he was demoted for “unauthorized absences.” According to a letter Nemeth received about three years ago, the military agreed to restore his rank to Corporal and deliver the medals.
It turned out the decision was only on paper, and the official word and the medals did not arrive until after 8 On Your Side got involved.
After weeks of going back and forth with the military, 8 On Your Side was able to open a dialog between the Nemeths and a Marine Corps Public Affairs Officer.
Stephen Nemeth said without that push, the problem would not have been solved.
“It’s just amazing,” his wife said. “It’s just amazing. We thank you so much. [8 On Your Side] doesn’t give up.”
Congressman Gus Bilirakis, a Republican who serves the 12th Congressional District, said there was “no excuse whatsoever” for the delay.
While the Marines have not responded to requests for comment on the lag in Nemeth’s case, Bilirakis said several federal agencies are still blaming staffing issues tied to COVID-19.
“These workers, particularly the bureaucrats in the VA, but all over, government needs to get back to work,” Bilirakis said. “No more excuses.”
The Nemeth’s delay could be a symptom of a bigger problem, according to Bilirakis, who said passing the Pandemic is Over Act would help. The bill terminates the COVID-19 public health emergency that was declared on Jan. 31, 2020. The declaration will end on its own later this year.
Nemeth hopes fellow veterans are not facing anything similar to his struggle.
“No one should [go through this,]” Nemeth said.
Nemeth calls the long-awaited result “justification for everything,” and his wife agrees.
“I’m crying now for relief that it’s finally there,” his wife said. “And we can move forward and he got what he deserved. He was a leader when he was in the military. He needs to be recognized for that.”