Last month, Howard Watters received a delivery via UPS. It was his father's Purple Heart.
"I am excited that the distinguished award is now in the right place. I know it means a great deal to you and your family," read the Feb. 12 letter from Allen Boyd of Weatherford, Okla.
Said Watters: "I still get goose bumps when I think about it sometimes."
Boyd said he bought the medal for $1 at an estate sale while on a summer vacation four years ago in Gunnison, Colo.
In an interview last week, he said as a patriotic gesture he wanted to find relatives of the man whose name was inscribed on the back: Sgt. 1st Class Cecil H. Watters.
"I'm the kind of guy who gets choked up when we have Veterans Day assembly," said Boyd, a math teacher whose father was a Korean War veteran.
You know, it would have been easy to keep the medal. I mean, there are plenty of folks out there who collect such things. They turn up in estate sales, garage sales, and pawn shops all the time. To try to actually return the medal is a difficult task. It would be hard to find who the proper family members would be. But Allen Boyd did.
His search for Watters began in Colorado, on the Internet.
"That was an enormous task," he said. "I didn't know what war it was from. I thought maybe it was World War II ... and then I got to thinking, if this person was awarded the Purple Heart for being killed in action and didn't have a son, there might not be anybody left."
His online sleuthing at a temporary dead end, he sought help from the Pentagon. That too, brought no success.
Then one day he found a Web site he'd never seen before. It listed a Cecil H. Watters from Mahaska County, Iowa, as being killed in action in 1950.
"I didn't know anything about Iowa so I went to a map," Boyd said.
Through phone calls he located William Watters, Howard's cousin from Oskaloosa, Iowa, who put him in touch with another relative. That relative, an uncle, got on the phone to Howard Watters and told him the medal had been found.
Having gown up in a military family, I know how important medals are. They tell the stories of valor, of sacrifice, and of day-to-day acts of courage that are the stock in trade of the soldier, sailor, and airman. Whenever possible, they belong in the hands of those whose sacrifices earned them, or the hands of their family members. Allen Boyd understands that, too. The reaction of Howard Watters explains why that is so.
For Watters, 54, having the medal back is a priceless experience. He said he owes Boyd a debt of gratitude for the effort he made to track him down.
"The odds of me ever seeing this again were astronomical. It's like me hitting the best lottery I could ever hit," he said.
He got "misty-eyed" when he opened the package, his wife, Glenda, said.
"I really don't know how to explain it," Watters said. "It's something I never thought I'd ever see again. I've got something now that belonged to my dad that I wouldn't have had otherwise."
Sadly, we live in a day when men and women of our nation are again being asked to make sacrifices that will leave children without a parent, parents without a child, and groups of siblings one member short. Medals like these are a tangible reminder of the heroism and self-sacrifice of that missing loved one. How many families are missing that reminder because it has been lost or stolen? How important would its return be?
In his letter to Howard Watters, Boyd wrote, "Your dad's Purple Heart was displayed in our home where we were asked many questions about its origin. I continued to periodically search for the owner's family. I knew someone, somewhere was looking for it."
Thank you, Sgt. 1st Class Cecil H. Watters, for your sacrifice for your country.
Thank you, Mr. Boyd, for doing the decent thing.
And to anyone else out there who has a Purple Heart or other military decoration that doesn't come from your family -- consider trying to locate the survivors of the man who earned it. It would almost certainly mean more to them than it ever will to you.