LOCKPORT, N.Y. - A Purple Heart awarded to a fallen World War II soldier that ended up stuffed inside a box at a New York Goodwill store will be returned to the veteran’s family.
The medal given to Pvt. James E. Roland in the 1940s was discovered in June by an employee at a Goodwill store in Lockport, N.Y., who saw it while unpacking donations. The medal had Roland’s name engraved on its back and was next to a photo of Roland, who died in battle at Anzio, Italy, on May 23, 1944.
The Goodwill store posted the photo on its Facebook page, which caught the eye of Linda Hastreiter, Region 1 Coordinator for the Veterans’ Recovery Progam of the Patriot Guard Riders, a non-profit, all-volunteer organization dedicated to attending the funeral services of fallen American heroes as invited guests of the family, according to its website.
“I started researching the Niagara Falls and Lockport areas with people of the same name with no luck,” Hastreiter told ABCNews.com . “I then went to Findagrave.com and found his [Roland's] grave in Westover so that’s how I started researching there.”
“I found there were six Roland names and I called every one of them and left a message,” she said. “One day I was coming home with an armful of groceries and the phone rang and it was Mary. She thought it was a joke and I said, ‘No, it’s no joke. This is what we do. This is what we have.’ It was an emotional conversation.”
Mary is Mary Roland Struble, the mayor of Westover, Pa., population 688, and a distant cousin of Pvt. Roland.
Struble knew her family had a long, proud history of military service but did not know that her relative – her grandfather’s cousin, who had died before she was even born – had died in the war, much less that he had received the Purple Heart for his service.
“I was shocked and proud at the same time,” Struble told ABCNews.com.
Struble got to work herself researching her relative’s background, going on Ancestry.com to “put all the pieces together.” She discovered that Roland was buried in the same Westover cemetery as other relatives including his parents and brother and her grandfather.
That cemetery, located at Westover Baptist Church, will be the site this Saturday of an emotional reunion as Hastreiter and members of the Patriot Guard Riders make the four-hour drive from Buffalo to Westover to return Pvt. Roland’s Purple Heart to his extended family.
Also on hand at the ceremony will be a military honor guard and at least two Westover residents now in their 80s who were friends with Pvt. Roland.
“There’s a man who lives in Westover who is 89 and was James’ best friend and just talking to him gave me chills,” Struble said. “This gentleman said James was one of the nicest guys he’d ever met. He was his best friend. ”
Though the mystery of who Pvt. Roland’s Purple Heart will be returned to is solved, the mystery of how the precious medal ended up at the Goodwill remains.
Hastreiter and Strouble have narrowed it down to the idea that the medal was held by Roland’s twin sister, Margaret Eunice, who, like James, moved to New York. Margaret Eunice, Strouble believes, died five or six years ago.
“I’m thinking she had his Purple Heart and when she passed her children, or whoever, in cleaning out, it got thrown into a bag and taken to the Goodwill,” Struble said. “But we have no idea if she has relatives or children or what her married name was.”
“I’m hoping with all of this that some of my relatives that I don’t even probably know exist out there try to get a hold of us and try to bring us back together again,” she said.
Until then, Struble says, Pvt. Roland’s medal will be carefully cared for by her and her brother, a veteran of the Vietnam War. She says the experience has made her realize the source of pride that comes from being born into a family of veterans and living in a small town where families, hers included, have lived for generations and generations.
“In just trying to comprehend everything that’s happened in the last couple of weeks, I just think I’m a small town person in small town America but yet the history of this town and the people who have done so much for our country in just this small town, you have to be proud and you have to feel you’re important,” she said. “Even though you’re just a small town person, you are important.”