Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read a heart-string-pulling story about “Purple Heart returned to family…” And for a good reason—these types of stories are full of emotion and ego, two things people outside of the militaria hobby like to read about. Regardless, the argument for returning of relics to families or not tends to ignore the basic acknowledgement of “Who actually owns the item?”
THERE ARE REASONS FOR LETTING ITEMS GO
I am a collector of military relics that have solid provenance that links the items to the soldiers who wore, used, carried, or were issued the pieces. Even though I possess a number of “named” items, I rarely feel compelled to “return the relics to the family.”
And why should I? Most of the medals, uniforms, helmets, or accouterments were originally government property.They were either sold as surplus, given to or obtained by the soldier upon discharge, or even stolen from the military.
Furthermore, the items I collect have likely slipped through family hands generations ago. Someone — either the soldier or someone close to them — made the conscious decision to sell, give, or throw away the items long ago.
Whatever the reason for the original owners and the items being separated, it is because of history enthusiasts and collectors that the items have survived. At some point in the relics history, someone decided, “Hey, I want that item…I will give you XX dollars for it.” And voilà! The military collecting hobby emerged.
WHO OWNS MILITARY MEDALS?
Returning Purple Hearts to descendants of the original recipients is fraught with emotion. That’s why stories about such actions make it into the news.
But how did those medals fall out the family’s hands in the first place?
These families that received “reclaimed” Purple Hearts may have only heard about grandpa’s service, never having actually seen the Purple Heart before. But, grandpa (or his immediate family) did handle the Purple Heart.
Maybe it didn’t mean much to grandpa or to his family, and it was cleaned out with the rest of grandpa’s belongings after he passed. Or, maybe grandpa sold it for 50 cents to an antique picker. In many cases, we will never know the chain of custody from the point of issue to the point of “rediscovery” by a collector.
Granted, there are instances where a relic and its original owner are unwillingly separated — theft being the most obvious. Regardless of the circumstances though, the question that anyone should be asking in these “return the relic to the family” situations is, “Who really owns the item?”
YOUR STUFF, YOUR RULES
If someone gets a thrill of tracking down a family and returning medals, helmets, or other pieces of militaria, that’s great. It is important to remember that it is their stuff to do with as they please. The same is true if they like to dress up in it, use it as artwork, or readapt it for other uses. Their stuff, their rules.
Where it gets murky, though, is when someone tries to tell me what to do with my stuff. I currently own named Purple Hearts. I also own medals presented to Victorian-era soldiers. In addition, I own uniforms, helmets, and gear worn by a number of WWI and WWII soldiers. Regardless, no one has the right to tell ME what I should do with the stuff.
The point is, disposal of military relics is a personal choice. It starts with the soldier to whom the item originally belonged. The solider often passes the items to their immediate circle (usually family). Many items pass from family hands, eventually falling into the collector stream.
Once collectors obtain the items, it’s up to them to decide further disposition. No one has the right to “shame them” into doing something with the items that they are not comfortable doing.
Sooner or later, though, every collector will be faced with the question of “proper” ownership. It may occur while showing items to others (“Hey! That helmet was worn by my great uncle!”) or simply by realizing there is no clear path of “keeping it in the family.”
I have already faced ownership issues in at least four instances. The first was when I acquired a US Soldier’s Medal that was engraved with a unique name. It was easy to Google the name only to discover the soldier was alive and … not so well. In fact, he was dying of cancer. He was delighted to share his story with me and explained that he lost track of the medal after Vietnam.
I sent the medal to him. He wanted to pass it on to his children when he died.
The second was an embroidered flag carried in Iraq by an MRAP driver. Again, a simple Google of his name showed me his current residence.
I contacted him and explained that I had a US flag with an embroidered inscription that named him. His response, “That was from my b—h wife before I shipped out. When I came back, she was gone. There is no WAY I want that flag!”
The third occurred when I was researching a medal awarded to a member of the 2nd Dragoons for his service in the storming of the fortress of Ghuznee in 1839. During my research, I learned it had been stolen from the 2nd Dragoons museum sometime in the 1950s.
It was an expensive medal. I hated to do it, but the right thing was to return it the museum. So, I did.
And finally, the fourth item strikes at the heart of this editorial: My Dad’s Class A’s from WWII. These have been preserved in my family since Dad returned from the War in 1946. They were never been worn again (except for one Halloween around 1976) and have been moved from home to home.
As WWII uniforms go, the uniform is nothing “special” (other than they were Dad’s): 7th Service Command shoulder insignia, 1st sergeant stripes, military police collar insignia. Not even a $100 uniform. But it was Dad’s. It occupies a large acid-free box that I move from home to home.
Like many collectors, I am in the stages of “down-sizing” my footprint. What do I do with Dad’s uniform?
I can keep moving it from home to home in the acid free box, but what happens when I die? My daughter doesn’t want it. Nor do any of Dad’s other grandkids. I know it is pretty meaningless to a museum—they have more Class A’s then they can display now. So what do I do with Dad’s uniform?
The obvious answer to me is: Sell it to a collector. Putting it in the collector stream is the strongest chance for the uniform’s survival. If I can move it to a collector and provide the history of Dad’s wartime duty, the chances of his service to the country being remembered after I am gone are very high.
This is because collectors don’t “lose” or throw out items…they pass them on to other collectors. Collectors are truly committed to preserving history.
So there’s the whole point of this editorial: Despite how collectors are portrayed in those “family reunited with medals” stories, we are NOT the enemy of family history. In fact, in most cases, private collectors provide the best option for preserving the memory of military service.
It is time that media acknowledges that many of those Purple Hearts, medals, or other named military relics that are “returned to the family” exist ONLY because some collector recognized the items for the history they represent. Collectors — whether they give the items to the soldiers’ families or preserve them in their own private collections — are responsible for saving these precious artifacts from disappearing into a landfill.
We preserve the memories.