The surprise and honor of a lifetime. That’s how Melvin Jonczak Sr. describes the moment his family presented him with military medals he earned 75 years ago, while serving in the United States Army during World War II.

It all began as a casual conversation between Jonczak Sr. and Catherine Kundratic, property manager for Catholic Charities’ Abingdon Gardens Senior Community in Harford County. Jonczak Sr. shared memories from his time in the Army including traveling to multiple countries, such as France and Germany, being a member the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers charged with building bridges and destroying German military bunkers, training as a paratrooper, and serving in the U.S. National Guard until his retirement in 1953.

WWII veteran Melvin Jonczak Sr.

“It was a heck of a time over there,” said Jonczak Sr. “I sacrificed so much for this country and waited years to be recognized. I almost thought I would never get my medals, but I’m sure glad I was running my mouth with Cat because she made this happen for me. She did this for me.”

“When Melvin told me he was unsuccessful in his two attempts of receiving his service medals, I thought I’d make an effort on his behalf,” said Kundratic.

Shortly after that conversation Kundratic wrote a letter to the Army identifying herself and explaining the situation. A few months later, she received a call. Jonczak Sr. would soon receive his five medals and pins. Initially, the Army planned to make the delivery in-person and perform a special ceremony, but COVID-19 changed those plans.

“I briefly considered waiting to present the medals until after the pandemic, but Mr. Jonczak was turning 97 years old on Christmas Eve so I thought it would be good for him to have this gift by his birthday,” said Kundratic.

An early birthday surprise

Jonczak Sr.’s family was informed when the medals arrived, and they planned a surprise ceremony for Dec. 22, 2020, just two days before his birthday. Jonczak Sr. thought he was heading for a family outing, but found himself being directed to a space deemed to be safe for social distancing based on COVID-19 restrictions.

“I wanted to slug my son Frank, because he kept insisting I wear my camouflage jacket and I didn’t want to wear it,” said Jonczak Sr. “It all makes sense now.”

Jonczak Sr. and his family

As they left his apartment, Jonczak Sr. was immediately greeted by his family, Melvin Jonczak Jr. and his wife, along with Frank’s wife. Frank, who also served in the Army like his father, led the ceremony where each family member pinned medals on the retired sergeant. Jonczak Sr.’s medals include:

  • Army marksmanship badge, awarded to personnel upon successful completion of a weapons qualification course.
  • Army Good Conduct Medal, awarded for exemplary behavior, efficiency, and fidelity in active federal military service.
  • World War II Victory Medal, commemorating military service during WWII and awarded to any member of the U.S. military, including members of the armed forces of the Government of the Philippine Islands.
  • The Army of Occupation Medal, created in the aftermath of WWII to recognize those who had performed occupation service in Germany, Italy, Austria, or Japan.
  • The Bronze Star Medal, the fourth-highest ranking award a service member can receive for a heroic and meritorious deed performed in an armed conflict after Dec. 6, 1941.

“You could see the joy and happiness on his face when he walked into the room next to the flag,” said Jonczak Jr. “Even my emotions were all over the place. I went from feeling numb to stunned, and then extreme excitement because my father finally got what he deserved. All the men of WWII had a terrible time receiving their medals, so many men never saw their medals. My dad is 97 years old. It was showed on his face that he was proud to get the recognition he deserves.”

“I felt bewildered,” said Jonczak Sr. “My mouth fell open when I walked into the room and saw the United States flag and my family standing there. I didn”t know what was going on at first. I was a little choked up that it all happened. I must say, I’m happy. Like they say ‘third time’s the charm.'”