JOHNSTON, R.I. — Alfred Bettencourt was an 18-year-old private first class in the U.S. Army when he was wounded in combat in France during World War II. His military records were destroyed in a 1973 fire, according to officials, so he never received his military honors.
But on Monday, Bettencourt, 89, finally received his medals — including the Bronze Star Medal, the Purple Heart and the World War II Victory Medal — at a ceremony at the Morgan Health Center in Johnston, Rhode Island. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who helped recover Bettencourt's military records, hosted the event.
"From 1944 to now is a long time," Bettencourt said with tears in his eyes. "I waited a long time for this."
Bettencourt, who has been at the health center for the past two months, said he was "shocked" to finally receive his medals and other honors like the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 Bronze Service Star and the Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award.
The ceremony was a surprise planned by Bettencourt's family, state officials, and the Cranston fire and police departments.
Last fall, Cranston police Officer Julie Furgasso met Bettencourt while responding to a well-being check at his apartment. Furgasso said she became like an "adopted granddaughter" to Bettencourt, who was living alone.
When Furgasso discovered that Bettencourt had never received his military honors, she reached out to her friend, Cranston fire Captain Chuck Pollock. They worked with Reed's office to get the records and complete the paperwork.
"Everything he deserved, he got it," Pollock said. "It's a shame it took so long."
Bettencourt is one of about 3,000 World War II veterans living in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. As of Jan. 1, there were about 850,000 WWII veterans in the entire nation, but 492 WWII veterans die each day, according to the data.
"Sixteen million Americans actually served in World War II, and for so many of them, it was a job they did and they came home and got back to the business of building their lives," said Kacey Hill, communications director for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. "It wasn't necessarily common for them to get this recognition until now."
Bettencourt's niece, Amanda Bettencourt of Pawtucket, choked up while describing how her uncle had waited.
"This is all he's talked about," she said.
Hill said the medal ceremonies are important not only to the veterans receiving the honors but also to their families.
"It's so important we get this done while they're still with us, but it's huge for these families because it gives them a piece of their relative's World War II story they can cherish and pass on to their children," Hill said.