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Honoring Heroes: Pa. Treasury works to return unclaimed war medals to veterans, families

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Down the nearly 80 year old manual elevator shaft and through the 60-ton stainless steel door sits the Pennsylvania Capitol Treasury Vau...

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Down the nearly 80 year old manual elevator shaft and through the 60-ton stainless steel door sits the Pennsylvania Capitol Treasury Vault. Inside is a treasure chest of history -- jewelry, sports memorabilia, and letters dating back to the Civil War. All of it unclaimed, its owners unknown.

Also unclaimed are hundreds of war medals. The Treasury Department estimates more than 500 have accumulated over the last 50 years. Among them, Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, Medals of Valor, and more. Most of the items inside the vault are coin collections, and other monetary items stored away in safety deposit boxes. War medals, however, according to State Treasurer Joe Torsella, are always maintained.

"These are never liquidated," Torsella said. "We hold onto these forever with the hopes that we can put them back with the families they belong to."

The regularity of which those reunions occur are unfortunately few and far between, Torsella adds. In 2017, two Purple Hearts were reunited with their owners. Most often, the medals give no hints to their past. Some times, though, messages left behind in the medal's original boxes offer clues.

One Purple Heart on display in the vault includes a handwritten message: "Michael T, I love you son. Your ol' Dad. PS Always Remember," it reads. However, the Treasury Department's team of detectives, as Torsella calls them, has been unable to find any leads as to who "Michael T" is, or the Purple Heart's origin.

"Everyone represents a story of service and sacrifice," Torsella said. "You see why we take special care of these and go through extraordinary lengths to find the owners, which is very difficult."

Veterans will return home from war and sometimes go decades without getting the proper recognition they deserve. Pennsylvania's Veterans of Foreign Wars posts are there to help.

"They don’t know where to find them where to get them. At that point we come in," said John Getz, adjunct coordinator for the state VFW headquarters in Susquehanna Township.

Getz says veterans, or their families, can contact the VFW which will point them in the right direction of how to get the proper recognition, and then how to properly honor the veteran once the medals are received. Getz suggests visiting the national archives website for instructions on how to get the medals from the Department of Defense.

Once the medals are received, the VFW can help set up a ceremony for the family.

"If the VFW is contacted I can set up something for their areas," Getz said. "We'll bring in an honor guard, and possibly a state commander if I can.

"Every veteran that's sacrificed is a hero. They all sacrificed. Combat or no combat."

If you think you may be able to help the Treasury Department with finding owners of its vault's unclaimed property, you can contact the Bureau of Unclaimed Property at 1-800-222-2046 or visit them at http://patreasury.gov/unclaimed-property/.