A military medal awarded to a Portland man wounded in World War I was returned to his family in Pittsfield on Sunday. The Purple Heart was awarded to Frank E. Conroy, an Army private first class who was injured in France in July 1918. It surfaced decades later when it was discovered among the possessions left behind by an uncle of Sheila Bedi of Vershire, Vt.
Bedi returned it to Conroy's only known descendant, Monica Pollard, at Pollard's home on Sunday.
"He was my grandmother's uncle," said Pollard.
Bedi, a metal detector hobbyist, was able to track down Pollard with the help of Vermont National Guard Capt. Zachariah Fike of Georgia, Vt., founder of Purple Hearts Reunited, a nonprofit foundation that finds and returns lost or stolen military metals to veterans and their families.
A Purple Heart recipient himself, Fike has returned 70 Purple Hearts in person to date, complete with a special ceremony, largely at his own expense. Searching military and genealogical records, Fike was able to make the link between Conroy and his great-great grandniece.
Fike said Purple Hearts, which have been issued to 1.9 million people wounded or killed in the U.S. military since 1917, go missing all the time. They have turned up in the walls and attics of old homes, in abandoned automobiles and even washing machines. Many wind up at pawn shops or auctions. A World War I Purple Heart can fetch $300.
Pollard said not much is known about her great-great uncle. Born on Feb. 5, 1894, Conroy was a second generation American whose family emigrated from Ireland. His mother died young and he and his brother, then living in Lynn., Mass., were sent to live with their grandparents in Bangor.
Pollard said Conroy settled in Portland, where he married and operated a lunch cart. He died at age 46 in 1936. He had no children.
Fike said Conroy must have been very proud of his military service. Unlike ensuing generations of soldiers, World War I veterans had to apply to receive a Purple Heart, in what Fike described as a somewhat complicated, lengthy process that didn't become available until 1932.
Fike said Conroy had to go to Portland City Hall to fill out a form. Then Conroy faced a several-year wait before he received his medal.
"That is what is so neat. It was probably very special to him," said Fike.
Unlike Purple Hearts issued to soldiers wounded in later wars, those issued to World War I's wounded veterans were engraved with their names.
While normally Fike would have offered to return the medal himself, Bedi was eager to do it. She made the trip to Pollard's home in Pittsfield on Sunday on the way back from visiting relatives in Machias.
Bedi said the medal was found among the possessions of her late uncle, who lived in Wells River, Vt. Bedi's father handed the medal over to her about two years ago with the hope she could enlist skills she has developed as a metal detector hobbyist to locate Conroy's family. Her family surmises her late uncle, a traveling salesman, picked up the Purple Heart at a yard sale or flea market.
She said she contacted Fike, whom she had seen on television. Fike quickly located Pollard. But Bedi and Pollard didn't manage to connect until a few weeks ago.
"We were like two ships passing in the fog," Bedi said.
Bedi said it was important for her to return the Purple Heart.
"As a metal detectress, it is about integrity," Bedi said.
Pollard said she plans to put the Purple Heart in a shadow box and display it in a place of honor in her house.
"I am happy and honored to take care of it," Pollard said.