On Purple Heart Day, an Iraq War veteran gets long-lost award

Retired Army Staff Sgt. Michael Thomas Jeffrey, left, reacts with surprise after seeing a glass-encased framed board with his military service medals presented to him as a gift after he received a Purple Heart during a ceremony in Washington D.C. on Purple Heart Day on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. Applauding is Jeffrey's brother, Army Sgt. 1st Class Joe Jeffrey.



WASHINGTON — Army Staff Sgt. Michael T. Jeffrey was wounded in Iraq in 2006 when a rocket-propelled grenade hit his Humvee, leaving him with a series of back and neck surgeries, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Iowa native received a Purple Heart in 2012 at the Warrior Transition Unit in Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he had been recovering from injuries. But when Jeffrey received his award, he took it in haste and immediately left the building. He was distracted, his father was dying.

It wasn’t until Jeffrey made it home that he realized it wasn’t his medal. It was inscribed with someone else’s name.

On Tuesday, nonprofit Purple Hearts Reunited, which returns lost medals to veterans, righted that wrong in an emotional, official ceremony to bestow the honor.

“I sent the medal back because it didn’t have my name on it,” Jeffrey, 40, told a crowd of veterans and families gathered at the Reserve Officers Association building on Capitol Hill. But “I know I’m going to walk away today with a Purple Hearts reunited.”

Jeffrey’s official citation was read, and his brother, Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Jeffrey, participated in Tuesday’s ceremony. The two who served in Iraq together then embraced, and remembered their late father, who “was looking down,” Joseph Jeffery said.

“It was awesome,” Joseph Jeffery, 36, said after the ceremony. We are lucky, “my brother is still here.”

Jeffrey was one of eight Purple Heart recipients honored Tuesday at an event called “Eight on the Seven” for Aug. 7, which marks Purple Heart Day, a celebration of the military’s oldest award. Purple Hearts Reunited brought together some families of the recipients, though many of them are gone, to award the medals and recognize their stories of courage.

The Purple Heart is awarded to servicemembers wounded or killed in action.

“It’s a miracle to come and be here,” said Myrtle Totty, who traveled from Fort Worth, Texas, to accept the Purple Heart on behalf of her late father, Army Sgt. 1st Class Billy Evans. “It’s a second miracle to have this honor for my father.”

Evans received the honor in 1967 for his valorous actions during the Vietnam War as a special forces adviser who took on heavy fire while deep in hostile territory and later wounded. Evans later lost his medal at a convention and spoke at length about the loss with his daughter.

“He was so devastated,” Totty, 64, remembered.

Marcia Trawick, praised the group’s recognition of her uncle, Army Sgt. Thomas Maynard Williams Jr., for his service and Purple Heart award during World War II.

“I am really honored,” she said.

Purple Hearts Reunited, which was founded in 2012, has undertaken difficult searches to locate the relatives of recipients who have lost their Purple Hearts. Once they are found, the group works to replace those lost awards.

“I thought it was a telemarketer and almost hung up,” Air Force veteran Sgt. Joseph M. Hish Jr., 90, said about the organization’s initial phone call to him. “How they ever found me, I don’t know. I’m in a 1,600-population town in Nebraska.”

Hish received the Purple Heart on behalf of his late father, Army Pfc. Joseph Mark Hish, who was honored for his valor during World War I.

“I’m so grateful,” Hish said of the honor. “It’s fantastic because it will bring peace and in some cases closure for many, many people.”

Twitter: @cgrisales

Myrtle Totty holds a glass-encased framed board containing military medals and paraphernalia she received during a ceremony in Washington D.C. on Purple Heart Day on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. Totty received the framed board that contained a Purple Heart Medal that had been awarded to her father, Vietnam veteran Sgt. 1st Class Billy Dale Evans. With Totty is her daughter Molly Mason.

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