A Purple Heart medal found by a stranger along a road in New York almost a decade ago was returned to the war hero’s family on Sunday, following a nationwide search to identify the rightful owner.
The medal belonged to U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bernard J. McNamara, who was wounded during combat operations in Italy during World War II. He was then captured and held as a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany for 18 months, according to Fox News, which obtained his military discharge papers.
McNamara received a Purple Heart, a military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed in action, after returning from war and went home to New York City, where he grew up as an orphan.
McNamara later relocated to Vermont with his wife and two children. He died after a battle with colon cancer in 1975, his family told Fox News.
Nearly a decade later, a man named Joseph “Dusty” Ridlon was walking a friend’s dog along a street in Nyack, a New York City suburb, when he spotted a shiny object on the ground. It was a Purple Heart medal with the likeness of George Washington on the front and an inscription on the back reading, “For Military Merit” and “B.J. McNamara Dec. 9, 1943.”
At first, Ridlon tried to locate the owner himself but later put away the medal in a box and forgot about it for years, he told Fox News.
Ridlon said he recently came upon the medal when cleaning out his home recently and gave it to a friend who then handed it over in early July to Anthony DelRegno, a former Navy corpsman and post commander of the C.R. and R.O. Blauvelt American Legion Post 310 in Nyack.
“I knew immediately it was a real Purple Heart,” DelRegno told Fox News.
DelRegno summoned the help of military historians as well as the office of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to track down the medal’s owner.
Schumer’s office eventually contacted McNamara’s next of kin after determining he was the Purple Heart recipient and learning he had died, according to Fox News.
At a press conference in New York City on Sunday, Schumer presented the medal to McNamara’s family, while also giving them two additional awards that have been reissued to McNamara, the Bronze Star Medal and the Infantryman Badge. The senator lauded McNamara as part of “America’s greatest generation.”
“My father was such a quiet and humble man,” McNamara’s daughter, Catherine Birong, told Fox News. “He certainly deserves this recognition.”
It’s still unclear how McNamara’s Purple Heart disappeared and ended up along a road in Nyack. But Birong believes it’s possible it was lost when her mother gave McNamara’s military gear and medals to some of her younger cousins playing at the family home in the Bronx in the early 1960s.
“The children were getting antsy,” Birong told Fox News. “And my mother — a funny and generous woman — gave them my dad’s military hats and medals and said, ‘Now go pretend you’re a soldier.’”
“That was the last time I recall seeing my dad’s Purple Heart,” said Birong, noting that her cousins lived in Rockland County, not far from where the prestigious medal was found decades later. “My cousins probably took it home with them.”
(H/T Fox News)