By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Paul Birkelund stood at attention as Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights) pinned a National Defense Service medal on his chest. The brief ceremony, which took place in Grimm’s Brooklyn district office on Sept. 4, was 51 years in the making.
Birkelund, a 71-year-old Bay Ridge resident, dropped out of Fort Hamilton High School in 1958 to join the Army, serving for three years, mainly in Germany and France. He never received his service medal, an award given to every military member upon leaving the service. Birkelund completed his tour of duty in 1961, during the Cold War.
He left the army and returned to civilian life, not thinking about the medal he was owed by the U.S. government. “We didn’t think about things like that back then. Nobody gave us nothing. We just did our duty. Now, they get parades and everything,” Birkelund said.
Well, Birkelund isn’t getting a parade. But Grimm, a Marine Corps veteran, said he heard about the oversight involving Birkelund’s medal from a member of Birkelund’s family and wanted to correct it. “He did not receive it. There were problems with the paperwork. Sometimes that happens with the military,” Grimm said, adding that it took him 10 years to get his medal.
“There’s a lot of frustration involved in navigating the V.A. and D.O.D.,” he said, referring to the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense.
Grimm contacted officials at the Pentagon and arranged for Birkelund’s medal to be delivered to his office. “Every single veteran is special and should never be forgotten. We want to make sure every veteran knows they’re special. As a fellow veteran myself, I tried to cut the red tape,” Grimm said.
The medal ceremony was short and simple. Grimm was joined by Col. Eluyn Gines, commanding officer of the Fort Hamilton Army Base, as he paid tribute to Birkelund in his office at 7308 13th Ave. Grimm and Gines each took turns pinning the medal on Birkelund’s green shirt. “We cannot thank you enough,” Gines told Birkelund. “Your service is the reason our nation is strong today,” Gines said. The fort commander said he also wanted to salute Birkelund as a fellow military man. “You set the pace for us,” he told the veteran.
Birkelund seemed touched by the tribute. Asked how he felt about the fact that at long last he was receiving his medal, he uttered one word: “Fantastic!”
Birkelund said he is proud of his service and that he believes he did his part in keeping the country safe. He served in Germany at a tense time. Russia was exerting its influence over the Iron Curtain countries. The Berlin Wall was built in 1961. Birkelund had left the military by then, but he remembers the East-West tensions during his time Germany.
“We stared down the Russians. We’re the reason we don’t speak Russian in this country today,” he said.
Birkelund looks back on his army days with pride and fondness. “We had a lot of fun. And the beer in Germany was great!” he said.