Couple's persistence sees Vietnam War KIA's Purple Heart returned to family
The Purple Heart medal.
Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah (MCT)
George Hood doesn't have much by which to remember his eldest brother, Don. A few old photographs, a couple of yellowing newspaper clippings, and that's about it.
But now, thanks to a Washington Terrace couple, Hood has one more deeply meaningful memento. His brother's Purple Heart.
Back in 1965, Capt. Don R. Hood was killed in action in Vietnam. His family was awarded three Purple Hearts for that sacrifice -- one was given to Hood's widow, one to his parents, and one to his in-laws. At some point over the past 48 years, one of the three medals went missing.
Enter Chad and Heidi Mower, who crossed paths with the missing Purple Heart about a decade ago. Theirs is a story that is both tragic and redemptive.
"To be totally honest, my husband and I are recovering addicts -- we were addicted to meth," Heidi Mower explained.
On one occasion, the couple was doing drugs with another man -- Heidi Mower doesn't remember his name, "It was just somebody we knew through the drugs" -- and the man said he had a Purple Heart that he was going to pawn to get money for drugs.
"I don't know if the guy stole it, or found it, or if he was even related (to the recipient)," she said. "I just know he wanted to pawn it to get high."
That didn't sit well with the Mowers -- particularly Heidi, who is former military herself. So they offered to buy it from the man, with the intention of finding the rightful owner one day.
"I don't know if we traded drugs or money for it; I just can't remember," Mower said. "But we bought it from him."
Shortly after, their drug habit landed the couple in jail for a couple of months, and their belongings -- including the Purple Heart -- went into a storage unit. It remained there, forgotten, for almost 10 years.
And then, last month, the Mowers bought a home in Washington Terrace. Now that they had a little more room, they decided to clean out their $60-a-month storage unit and move its contents to the new home.
And that's when they came across the long-forgotten Purple Heart, and remembered the promise to themselves to return the medal to its rightful owners.
Heidi Mower began her research. On the back of the medal, below the words "For Military Merit," was engraved the name "Don R. Hood."
She ran into several dead ends in her quest to find Hood's family but said she wasn't about to give up, as it quickly "became this do-or-die thing for me."
"I even called 'Get Gephardt' at one point, but they never called me back," she said. "I guess that's not the kind of thing they're interested in."
Mower finally tracked down a Hood family member, a nephew, in Seattle, who put her in touch with family in Utah. The trail eventually led to North Ogden resident George Hood, who was Capt. Hood's younger brother.
"This lady called my husband a week or so ago and said, 'We have a Purple Heart with your brother's name on it,' " said Sharen Hood, George Hood's wife of two years.
In the mid-1960s, Don R. Hood was living in Layton with his wife and seven children, ages 3 to 11. A pilot, Capt. Hood had volunteered for his tour in Vietnam. His wife wasn't keen on the idea, but she didn't stand in his way.
"I knew he wanted to go," said his widow, who still lives in the area but asked not to be identified. "What could I say? He went with my blessing."
She confirmed that she still has the other two Purple Hearts.
Capt. Hood flew more than 100 combat missions and earned four Air Medals flying A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft with the 602nd Air Commando Squadron out of Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam.
According to newspaper reports, he was killed Oct. 2, 1965, when the Skyraider he was piloting collided with another aircraft during an attack on a guerilla compound near Qui Nhon.
However, family members said they were led to believe his plane was shot down by enemy ground forces.
"I was told my brother was hit by Viet Cong fire, and while he was trying to pull out of it, he hit the side of a mountain," said George Hood. Capt. Hood's widow said she was also told it was ground fire that took out her husband's plane.
But whatever happened in the final moments of Capt. Hood's life, Heidi Mower said her research gave her an appreciation for his sacrifice.
"I feel a real kinship to this family. It's just an amazing journey to me. I'm thankful it fell into my lap."
A barber by trade, 79-year-old George Hood still commutes from North Ogden to Salt Lake City three times a week to cut hair. He was in his early 30s when his older brother went off to Vietnam. In September 1965, his brother came home on leave.
"He was supposed to just go to Hawaii, but he came all the way home to Utah for a few days," George Hood recalled.
The two brothers had planned to go to dinner while Capt. Hood was home, but the pilot got pneumonia and ended up staying home in bed. Just days later, back in Vietnam, he was killed in action.
Sharen Hood said her husband is a quiet man of few words, but she knows he's excited to receive his brother's medal.
"That, and the newspaper articles, are about all he has of his brother," she said.
And what does this lost-and-found Purple Heart mean to George Hood?
"It just kind of brings it all back -- you try to remember the good things about him," he said, tears welling.
"I think he was a fairly brave guy, and he was trying to do what he felt was right for the country. ... He was my brother, and he was a good guy. Your older brother, you looked up to him."
Chad and Heidi Mower have been drug-free almost 10 years now.
"I thank the Lord above that's way in my past," Heidi Mower said.
She said she was shocked when the Hoods asked what she and her husband wanted for the medal -- she simply believes Capt. Hood's Purple Heart belongs with his family.
"I think maybe they thought I wanted a reward, but I already got my reward tenfold, just learning about this amazing man," Mower said.
"They say good things come out of bad things. It's true."