Glen Cove family presented with Purple Heart in honor of Harlem Hellfighters member

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A Glen Cove family was presented Saturday with a Purple Heart in memory of their father and grandfather, who served as an Army sergeant in World War I.

The family of Sgt. Leander Willet proudly accepted a Purple Heart in his honor at a ceremony on Saturday at the North Shore Historical Museum in Glen Cove.

Willett died back in 1956. The honor was presented more than 101 years after he served.

Leander Willet served back in 1918 and was a member of the Harlem Hellfighters. The African American infantry unit wore the American uniform, but served with the French army because many white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with African Americans.

Despite the Harlem Hellfighters' courage, sacrifice and dedication to the U.S., its members returned home from service to face racism and segregation.

"To see now what happened to him has now culminated into a Purple Heart, and that all of his hard work and his patriots' hard work has really been recognized and acknowledged -- I'm going to be on a high for the next two years," says Willet's granddaughter, Deb Willet.

The presentation of the Purple Heart was kept a surprise from the Willet family until the ceremony today.

The Willet family had asked Rep. Tom Suozzi to request a Purple Heart of behalf of their loved one. After being declined for lack of documentation, Suozzi says he persevered and was able to finally surprise the family with the honor.

"They've been talking about his service for so many years and it's about time they're properly recognized," says Suozzi.

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