The story of a Purple heart citation and a search for the medal's owners

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

On an ordinary Saturday in January, volunteers at the Salvation Army in Upstate New York were sifting through donations of unwanted stuff when Shelia Gladding opened a box of what looked to be the usual chipped glass trinkets and forlorn bric-a-brac.

Then she scooped out a piece of paper. "Purple Heart," it read. "For military merit and for wounds received in action resulting in his death June 6, 1944."


Next to it, she found a sepia-tinted photograph of a smiling, handsome blond man in uniform, the Purple Heart recipient, Sgt. Richard E. Owen. On the back of the picture was a 15-cent stamp and the address of a Mrs. Richard E. Owen in Winchester, Va.

Gladding froze. How could this be? The official recognition of the ultimate sacrifice a soldier can make to his country, tossed in a box of discarded household items?

"It wasn't even wrapped neatly in paper," Gladding said. "I thought of my father, who fought in World War II, and how upset he'd be if he had a Purple Heart and his certificate wound up like this one, in a box of junk."

Gladding gave the certificate and photo to a Salvation Army manager, who passed them to Capt. Ron Heimbrock, who runs the charity's branch in Massena, N.Y. Heimbrock has seen his share of strange objects that people cast off. For years, he kept a miniature church in his office that someone had built entirely of matchsticks. But he had never seen anything like this.

Surely this was a mistake. Surely these were treasures that must be returned to someone who cared.

Heimbrock embarked on a search that would soon span the country as amateur genealogists, military bloggers, veterans groups, journalists and well-wishers transfixed by the mystery rummaged through courthouse records in Indiana, pored over newspaper archives in Pennsylvania, paged through old city directories in Winchester, surfed every corner of the Web and cold-called every Owen in dozens of phone books in a desperate attempt to find his next of kin.

"I am consumed by the story," a military blogger wrote last week. "I refuse to believe that this hero goes unremembered."

The collective work of the hunters revealed the fact that Owen had been shot in the leg by hooligans at age 11. That he was one of five children and that his sister's name was Dimple. But how did the precious personal effects of a fallen soldier from Northern Virginia wind up abandoned in a tiny New York town of 13,000 on the Canadian border?

At first, Heimbrock ran into dead ends. He tried finding the person who'd dropped off the box, but the Salvation Army doesn't keep donor records. Through Web searches, Heimbrock discovered that Owen was born in 1913 in Indiana and had enlisted in the Army National Guard in Winchester in 1940. He was listed as single with one dependent.

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