HESPERIA, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — After stepping on a land mine while seeking out the enemy in the Chu Pong and the Ia Drang Valley during the Vietnam War, Spc. Craig Hampton, now 70, was awarded this nation’s oldest medal, the Purple Heart.
After having a major stroke three years ago, he was forced to live in a home where he could get care and that medal along with other things disappeared.
Thanks to the watchful eye of a property clerk at the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin and the perseverance of a stubborn detective the medal that Hampton thought would never be found was returned Friday.
As the wheelchair-bound combat veteran was presented with his medal, he told the media present that he was amazed it was found so far away.
“I don’t know how it ended up there,” he said. “But I’m thankful these wonderful people found it.”
From February 1966 to January 1969, Hampton served with Company B, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division during Operation Paul Revere IV. This same operation was the focal point of the Mel Gibson film “We Were Soldiers.”
His unit’s primary mission was to execute extensive search and destroy missions in the area as well as the Cambodian border.
It was during this mission that Hampton stepped in a creek right on top of a land mine.
“I had no idea I was going to get it that day,” he said. “We were on patrol and I slipped into a creek and boom.”
It would take time, but Hampton would keep his leg until later in life when an accident claimed the same leg. When he became a civilian again, he would go on to own a carpet-laying business before retiring five years ago.
After suffering a stroke in 2012, Hampton lived in a home where he says the caretakers were abusing him and other veterans living there.
“They would use my ATM card to purchase things for themselves and they stole checks from the others and cashed them, keeping the money,” he said. “That’s the last time I saw my medal.”
Eventually, law enforcement intervened and an ongoing investigation is being conducted by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
“Sheriff’s deputies came to the house and started to investigate the thefts,” Hampton said. “That’s when they brought me here.”
Hampton, who’s now living in the care of a new family is happy and safe, was thrilled to get a call from Purple Hearts Reunited saying his medal had been found.
Madison Detective Michael Brennan and the founder of Purple Hearts Reunited, U.S. Army Capt. Zachariah Fike, trekked thousands of miles to return the medal to Hampton.
“As a veteran myself and the father of a veteran, I was honored to travel here to return his Purple Heart,” Brennan said. “This was very rewarding for me. This needed to be done, and there was no way I was just going to mail it back to him.”
In full dress uniforms, Fike and Brennan returned the medal to Hampton, but this time it was encased with other medals he had earned while serving his country.
Encased with his Purple Heart was the National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with two Bronze Service Stars, Vietnam Campaign Medal with 1960 Device, Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation. During his military service, he also earned the Good Conduct Medal and the coveted Combat Infantry Badge.
“This is wonderful,” Hampton said. “I’m at a loss of words.”
The medal was found on Jan. 19 affixed to an abandoned backpack in Madison.
Brennan said he tracked down the owner of the backpack who told him several lies as how he ended up with this medal. He eventually said he was a transient and he found it while walking along the road in Hesperia and picked it up.
Purple Hearts Reunited, a nonprofit foundation that returns medals of valor to veterans or their families in order to honor the sacrifice made to the nation, has returned medals and artifacts to over 200 families and museums.
“I do this on my own time,” Fike said. “It’s something that needs to happen. Our veterans sacrifice even after they leave military service. It’s our duty to honor them here and now.”
©2016 the San Bernardino County Sun (San Bernardino, Calif.)
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