TAMPA — Robert French was overwhelmed Tuesday.
He knew he would finally be awarded a Bronze Star 46 years after he was shot while crawling through rice paddies as an Army specialist during the Vietnam War. But everything else — the police cars and formal procession to MacDill Air Force Base, the over-crowded presentation room with people spilling into the hallway — stunned the 67-year-old Tampa native who, until a few years ago, didn't even know he had been nominated for the medal.
French tried to take it all in.
Next to him on stage was Maj. Gen. Karl Horst, the CentCom chief of staff. His two daughters and 12-year-old granddaughter were in the audience, as well as former colleagues and friends dating to his childhood.
Sitting quietly in the second row was Lan Cong-Tang. Cong-Tang, who was born in Vietnam, met French through work at the University of South Florida a couple of years ago. The friendship that resulted changed both of their lives, she said. After decades of relative silence, French began to open up and process some of what he went through.
His wife, Kaye, teared up when she saw Cong-Tang walk in.
"She's his reason for being able to turn around and put even a little of it behind him," she said.
After introductory remarks, including the national anthem and a speech from Horst, the moment arrived. The audience stood, camera shutters clicked and the room listened as the reader told of French's "exceptionally meritorious service" and "diligence and loyalty."
French looked at his wife affectionately as she pinned the Bronze Star on his chest, her hands shaking slightly as she cried.
She couldn't hold it together any longer. Sobbing momentarily, she collapsed against her husband's shoulder, hand on his chest as the sergeant received an honor more than four decades overdue.
"Kaye, someone has to shake his hand and someone has to kiss him," Horst said.
The audience laughed as she leaned forward and kissed her infantryman. But the presentation wasn't over.
French, who left the Army as a sergeant, and his wife stood in amazement as he was handed gift after gift as a thank-you for his service. A plaque in remembrance of the boys of '67, a statue of a soldier symbolizing his service, a flag, several military coins, a shadowbox filled with his ribbons and medals. Kaye joked they would have to get a bigger house.
"I had no idea things were going to happen like they did today, no earthly idea." French said. "I'm very happy they did, but I had no idea."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or 813-661-2427.