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Missing Purple Heart returning to veteran's family after a 20-year mystery detour

By PHIL LUCIANO | The Journal Star | Published: January 24, 2019

MORTON, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — After a 20-year search, a Purple Heart is coming home.

Thursday, at a ceremony at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5921 in Morton, the family of late Army soldier Coy Bartelmay will regain his Purple Heart, awarded in 1971 when he lost a leg in the Vietnam War. While recuperating at home, he died later that year outside Morton in a car crash, and the citation later vanished. But it's headed back to the right place, thanks to a long and remarkable hunt by a 92-year-old World War II vet in Cleveland and a TV reporter there.

"It's been amazing," says Faye Bartelmay, whose husband, Doug Bartelmay — the soldier's cousin and one of few surviving relatives — will take possession of the Purple Heart.

Born in Canada on March 31, 1950, Coy Bartelmay came to Morton as a tot with his parents, Etta and George Bartelmay. After graduating Morton High School in 1968, Coy Bartelmay worked his parents' appliance store before entering the Army in early 1970. On Feb. 2, 1971, while serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, he lost his right leg when an enemy booby trap exploded.

"He returned home March 26 to be greeted by friends and neighbors who flew flags, strung signs and blocked off his street in his honor," the Journal Star later recalled.

For his injury, he was awarded the Purple Heart. At home he recuperated well enough to drive a car. However, he died that Dec. 27 after he crashed his GTO outside Morton.

Afterward, his parents treasured his Purple Heart, Faye Bartelmay says.

"There's no way George and Etta would've given it up," she says.

However, the have since died — she in 1994, he in 2003 — so it's unclear what happened to the citation. In some sort of mix-up, however, the Purple Heart vanished about 20 years ago.

About that time, a Cleveland trucker stopped at a Midwest thrift store and spotted the Purple Heart for sale.

"He didn't think that was right, for it to be sold," Faye Bartelmay says.

So, he bought it and looked for advice from a Cleveland pal named Walter Stein, a veteran of World War II. Thereafter, off and on, Stein tried to find the rightful owner.

But several factors snagged his search. The Purple Heart misspells the first name as "Cox." Other misspelling might've popped up in records as well. Other records identify him as living in Canada or Pennsylvania, the latter the site of a hospital stay between Vietnam and Morton.

Stein was flummoxed and frustrated. One day, his wife blurted, "Tell Rob Powers. He'll find him."

Powers is a news anchor for WEWS-TV in Cleveland. At first, he wasn't sure what he could do for Stein. But the vet's enthusiasm was catchy.

"He'd been trying to find the family all this time," Powers says.

After some legwork, Powers made the connection to Coy Bartelmay and Morton. At the news, Stein was ecstatic, except to hear that he could not meet the medal-winner.

"Walt was a little disappointed that he isn't around," Powers says.

Still, Thursday morning, Powers and Stein will drive from Cleveland to Morton. At 6 p.m., the Purple Heart will go to Coy Bartelmay's family, finally home after a long and mysterious trip.

"We just want to make Walt happy and make the family happy," Powers says.

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