Mixed in with costume jewelry and trinkets was a gold and purple heart-shaped medal bearing the image of George Washington.
A Purple Heart, Matthew Carlson thought to himself. But what was it doing at a swap meet in Glendale, Arizona, for just anyone to buy?
How much do you want for it, he asked. Forty dollars, the vendor said.
“I got $20 on me right now,” Carlson said. “I’ll give it to you right now.”
At least, the Vietnam veteran told himself, he wouldn’t have to “see it hanging on the shirt of some kid going to a rave party or something like that.”
Who did it belong to? The answer was engraved on the back of the medal: “For Military Merit, Clarence M. Merriott.”
But that only spawned more questions: Who was he? How did he earn the medal? And how did it end up on a table of trinkets at the Glendale Park ‘n Swap in January?
As the nation honors the service of veterans on Monday, the journey of this particular Purple Heart will unite service members and families across decades. For each, it will serve as a reminder of service, sacrifice and loss.
Searching for answers
Purple Hearts have been popping up for sale on the Internet and at flea markets in the past year, spurred by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned the Stolen Valor Act on the grounds of free speech. The act made it a crime to falsely claim high military honors.
As a result, the ruling also lifted a ban on the buying and selling of military decorations and medals.
Among online collectors, the medals — awarded to those killed or wounded in action — can fetch anywhere between $50 to $500.
The Pentagon does not release information about a service member or family members, citing privacy concerns.
So, for Carlson, tracking the medal’s origins would be no easy task.
The medal’s blue presentation case with its gold lettering, bearing the words “Purple Heart,” appeared to Carlson to be in fairly good condition.
Inside the box, the lining was faded and the cloth hinge was ripped. But the medal itself was in decent shape.
Carlson stored it in his bedroom for safekeeping while mulling how to go about finding Merriott or his family.
A few clues—and help from the Internet
For months, the medal sat untouched in Carlson’s suburban Phoenix home.
But it was never far from his thoughts. The 59-year-old had served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He, like so many, lost friends in the war. He knew what the medal meant to the families of the fallen.
Surely, Merriott’s medal must mean something to someone, he thought. But how to find out?
“Do you know how to use the Internet to find things?” Carlson, a self-proclaimed computer illiterate, asked his son in late April.
The answer, of course: Yes.
He opened up the case to show his son, removing the medal from the box. For the first time, he noticed several pieces of paper folded tightly into the bottom of the box. One was the medal certificate, which indicated Merriott had been killed on June 19, 1944.