It was a celebration more than a half-century in the making.
On Dec. 12, 1944, 18-year-old Pfc. Alfred Bettencourt was wounded while serving his country in France.
Now 89, Bettencourt, of Cranston, never received his Purple Heart, nor the other medals and awards he earned during his time in the U.S. Army. His service records were destroyed in a fire in 1973.
That all changed on Monday, as a host of dignitaries, law enforcement and fire officials joined Bettencourt, his family, neighbors and friends at the Morgan Health Center in Johnston for an emotional gathering meant to honor a man known to most as simply “Fred.”
“We are here today to honor an American hero,” said U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, whose office worked with Bettencourt and two Cranston public safety personnel – Police Officer Julie Furgasso and Fire Capt. Chuck Pollock – to obtain the medals. “I think it’s important to honor his sacrifice today.”
In addition to the Purple Heart, Bettencourt was awarded the Bronze Star Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one Bronze Service Star, the Combat Infantryman Badge 1st Award and the Honorable Service Lapel Button WWII.
The gathering was a surprise to Bettencourt, who entered the packed function room with a wide smile as he was surrounded by well-wishers.
Reed began the proceedings, speaking of the high regard in which today’s service members – like those he visited during a recent trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan – hold veterans like Bettencourt.
“They’re not going to break faith with your sacrifice, your service, your commitment to our country,” the senator said.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung presented Bettencourt with a challenge coin from the city, and praised him for his service.
“He sacrificed for us,” the mayor said.
Fung also applauded Furgasso and Pollock, calling them “wonderful guardian angels” for Bettencourt
Cranston Fire Chief William McKenna also presented Bettencourt with a challenge coin on behalf of the department, and Michelle August of Beacon Hospice presented Bettencourt with a certificate honoring his service.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Bettencourt said of finally receiving his military honors.
Turning his attention to Furgasso and Pollock – who began the “Friends of Fred” page on Facebook and have worked over the last several months to help support Bettencourt – he became emotional.
“I can’t thank you enough,” Bettencourt said. “You’re a dream come true … You two mean so much to me.”
Furgasso first met Bettencourt late last year after being dispatched to check on his well-being. She found him in a difficult situation, and essentially became his “adopted granddaughter,” working with Pollock to connect him to services and transportation.
The “Friends of Fred” effort drew much attention, helping provide for Bettencourt’s day-to-day needs. Following a December gathering at Mangia Mangia on Cranston Street, enough supplies were collected to make a donation of food and coats to Operation Stand Down Rhode Island in Johnston, an organization dedicated to helping homeless and at-risk veterans find stable housing.
Furgasso and Pollock have also arranged for Fred to take part in an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in April to visit the World War II Memorial.
Fred’s brother and sister, Paul and Matilda Bettencourt, were also on hand for the ceremony.
“I’m happy for him,” Paul said. “It’s a long time coming.”
Paul also praised Furgasso, Pollock, and the men and women of the Cranston police and fire departments for their efforts to help his brother.
“They are fantastic,” he said.