Some call it morbid, while others might deem it offensive. “I don’t get why any loser would buy a Purple Heart…maybe a Silver Star, if you’re…I don’t know hoping to have a cool decoration for valor” states one person who objects to militaria collectors – specifically those who collect our nation’s Medal for Military Merit.
In a recent article by Bill Briggs of NBC News, a national spotlight has been pointed squarely on the controversy and friction between Purple Heart medal collectors and opponents such as Purple Hearts Reunited INC., a non-profit organization that works to reunite awarded, engraved medals to the veterans or their surviving family members. At the center of the fray is some misconceptions the center on the now-defunct Stolen Valor Act (SVA) and the legality of selling and purchasing a valor medal or “owning” such a medal that wasn’t awarded to them.
The scenario of lost military decorations is a sad tale to be certain. It is heart wrenching to think that the only items documenting and connecting the family members to the ultimate sacrifices made by their loved one on the field of battle could be lost to time, ending up as a commodity. It can be unthinkable by many that people could profit considerably by selling one of these lost decorations to a fiendish collector. But, as this is what groups like Purple Hearts Reunited would have the uniformed believe, it certainly isn’t the entire story.
A few months ago, I tried to encapsulate what I have personally witnessed in the militaria collecting world with my story, The Merits of Heart Collecting. I have seen these collectors, many of whom are veterans and recipients of the vaunted medal, take extreme pride in preserving the sanctity of the awarded medals, spending valuable time and resources researching their recipients in order to preserve and tell the story of the veteran’s sacrifices. These individual stories are then used to personalize what is very often highly sanitized in history books and classroom discussions, keeping the true cost of war in the realm of statistics.
I have personally witnessed the disconnection of Americans from their heritage in several workplaces in my career. I have had instances where all of my colleagues in my work center have had absolutely no relatives (that they were aware of) who had served in the U.S. armed forces. These people were fascinated that I was a veteran. They had a hard time grappling with the idea that someone would voluntarily serve and willingly go to war if so called. Though I felt like a circus sideshow freak, I realized that these people are the norm of our culture and truly didn’t intend to be offensive with their ignorance of personal sacrifice for the greater good of our nation. It is situations like these that motivates Purple Heart collectors.
Imagine attending a community function, such as a fair, and one of these disconnected individuals, while casually viewing the various exhibits, stumbles on a colorful array of a dozen Purple Heart medals, each with its awardee’s combat story. Imagine that person coming face-to-face with the painful stories and the representative medals for each of those people. How much of an impact could that have?
I believe that what Purple Hearts Reunited and its founder, Capt. Zach Fike, are doing is altruistic and has fantastic intentions. But to blast the collectors of the medals is not the way to go about garnering support or fostering a partnership in the endeavor to return the medals to families. Labeling collectors as nothing more than cold, heartless profiteers is self-serving and seems to be more about obtaining government support (and funding) to impose his will.
What Fike seems to ignore is what collectors (and pickers) experience by the thousands at estate, garage and yard sales around America. Almost without exception, family members with no connection to the deceased veteran’s service (no interest, indifference, an so on) place the valued items out for sale. Often, the collectors seek the details about the veteran in an effort to learn about his service only to hear comments like, “I don’t know. All I do know is that I have all this stuff and I need to sell it. Make me an offer.”
Not all families sell off these precious pieces. Many times, the families are victims, losing track of the medals and decorations due to difficult situations.
In my own family, my uncle, a three-war veteran, passed away 15 years ago at a ripe old age. His only surviving heir was his youngest brother, my grandfather. Most of my uncle’s medals were sent by the estate executor to my grandfather who, at the time, was in an assisted living facility. He was suffering from dementia and was losing his capacity to make rational decisions. We were unaware that he had received the decorations and there was no sign of them once we did learn that they had been sent to him. Those awards, which included two engraved Purple Heart medals for wounds received in WWI and WWII, were gone, and undoubtedly landed in a collection somewhere.
Would I like to see my uncle’s decorations returned to my family? There’s no question. However, I am not willing to blast the collector who ended up with them, labeling them as morbid or some other abhorrent adjective.
While I do not collect named medals, especially Purple Hearts, I certainly do not begrudge those who do. I also realize that there are some folks who are interested in the medals solely for the profit or the “cool” factor, but they are certainly not the mainstream as Zach Fike would have folks believe.
In this conflict between the collectors, families, the federal government and organizations such as Purple Hearts Reunited, I am hopeful that some sort of middle ground will be achieved.