Proposed bill would create path to repatriate Medals of Honor sold overseas
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 21, 2020
AUSTIN, Texas — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has introduced legislation that allows Americans to purchase Medals of Honor found overseas and return them to the United States for educational purposes, repairing an unintended consequence of the Stolen Valor Act that banned importing the military medal.
The Limiting and Enabling Gathering Awards Commemorating Yesteryear Act, or LEGACY Act, creates a way for the medals to be purchased by Americans or American institutions only for educational use. The defense secretary must approve those purchases and the subsequent importation of the medal.
The bill, which is headed to the Senate’s Finance Committee sometime in the new year, also threatens sanctions for those who engage in financial transactions of a Medal of Honor, unless it is to return the medal to the United States. Potential sanctions could include freezing assets in American territories, revoking or denying Visa applications or arrest upon entering the United States.
"Foreign sales of Medals of Honor harm the dignity and honor of all recipients,” Cruz said in a statement. “By creating a process for these medals to be donated to the military, museums, or educational institutions, future generations of Americans will be able to learn more about Medal of Honor recipients' heroic service and countless contributions to our country."
The question of what should happen to a medal when the veteran who received it has died draws impassioned responses and was part of the Stolen Valor Act in 2006. The bill, which was last modified in 2012, cracked down on people falsifying military service and awards and also banned the sale of a Medal of Honor, the highest valor award bestowed upon American service members.
Subsequently, it also banned returning from overseas with a Medal of Honor, regardless of whether the transaction was legal in the country where it occurred.
In total, 3,526 Americans have earned the Medal of Honor since it was first authorized by Congress in December 1861. More than 1,500 were issued in the Civil War, which predates the current standards for consideration.
In some cases, a family line dies out and there is no one to inherit a medal. In other instances, recipients or their families just don’t want the medal anymore, said Robert Wilson, who owns a store called Tarbridge Military Collectibles in Fayetteville, N.C., that specializes in buying and selling military items.
“These medals were the most hated thing in my house,” Wilson recounted a woman told him in his shop as she sold her brother’s medals decades after he was killed in Vietnam. “She said, ‘They took my brother and put those in place of him.’”
However, there are plenty of collectors out there “who volunteer their own time and money to pay for the privilege of curating this stuff,” said Jeff Schrader, a military antique dealer in Burfordville, Mo. “In reality, the work that they are doing, is really why a great many things will exist 100 years from now that would not otherwise.”
Earlier this year, a Medal of Honor presented to Army Pvt. Thomas Kelly in 1899 for his efforts in the Spanish-American War turned up for sale in a German auction house. It sold for more than $15,000. Neither the buyer nor seller were made public, so how Kelly’s medal made its way to Germany is not known.
At the time, Cruz made an unsuccessful attempt to intervene and halt the sale, as did the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, which is raising $185 million to build a museum for the Medal of Honor in Arlington, Texas.
Hermann Historica, the German auction house selling the medal, offered to sell the medal directly to the museum. However, the museum did not accept the offer because returning it stateside would have been illegal.
The LEGACY Act states the defense secretary will have the authority to approve organizations to purchase and/or import Medals of Honor back to America, but the medal must go to a museum, educational institution, or back to the service branch that originally awarded it.
This path to repatriation is the most important part of the bill, said James Connors, CEO of the museum foundation.
“It intends to stretch our law to international law, but it’s going to require cooperation with our allies,” he said.
The museum is still about four years away from opening its doors, though it has already begun to acquire Medals of Honor, mainly through family donations. This year, they’ve accepted two medals donated by the families of Army Spc. Robert Law and Army Maj. Charles Davis.
Davis’s son presented the foundation with the medal that his father received in 1943 for action in World War II. The donation also included letters that Davis wrote to his wife about receiving the medal. Law received the medal for actions in the Vietnam War.
These and any other medals housed in the museum will be the “crowned jewels” of the collection, Connors said. Should Cruz’s bill pass into law, Connors said they would immediately file to get approval to begin acquiring medals overseas and begin returning them to America. They are already purchasing items off the market that will aid in the museum’s storytelling and artifact collection.
“Our mission is a patriotic mission and the LEGACY Act is, of course, a patriot piece of legislation,” Connors said. “We’re constantly on the lookout across the world for opportunities. We’re still in the process of raising the profile and awareness of what [we are] doing here in Arlington. I couldn’t think of better way to do that than to be the agent that repatriates a medal or more than one medal.”
While Cruz’s law paves the way for medals to come home for educational purposes, it does not allow for collectors to apply for the waiver to bring the medal home to keep for themselves.
Wilson said he believes a repository such as the museum in Texas could be beneficial for the Medal of Honor. However, when it comes to a medal such as the Purple Heart, which has been issued 1.8 million times, it is far more difficult to say that a repository for all of them is the best choice. In his shop, an infantryman’s Purple Heart can sell for about $350 to $400. However, if the service member was part of an elite unit or battle, its price can jump into the thousands.
As controversial as it is, Wilson said assigning monetary value to medals is what preserves them.
“I sell medals and to some people that’s horrible,” he said. “I sell medals because I don’t want them to wind up in the landfill.”
However, Medals of Honor might continue to end up overseas because of the money, even at the risk of breaking the law, said Schrader, who owns Advance Guard Militaria.
If Cruz wanted these medals back in America, “the solution to that is to lift the prohibition on sales of them here in the United States,” he said. “That would be a very controversial thing, and I understand that a lot of people would be very unhappy to hear that. But the people who own them who are not in a position to take the financial hit of giving them to a museum when they want to sell them, where do they go? They go illegally to Europe and sell them.”
The family of Maj. Charles Davis donated the Army officer’s Medal of Honor earned during World War II to the National Medal of Honor Museum Foundation, which is projected to open in 2024 in Arlington, Texas. New legislation from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, hopes to allow for other Medals of Honor that are now located overseas to be repatriated back to the United States for display at museums.
NATIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR MUSEUM FOUNDATION