Bittersweet reunion: Shelton couple helps local veteran get her Purple Heart back

Photo of Brian Gioiele

SHELTON — Russ Martin’s chance visit to a Shelton pawn shop last month helped reunite a soldier with her Purple Heart medal.

Army Reserve Msg. Heather Awner, a former Connecticut resident now living in El Paso, Texas, was awarded the Purple Heart in 2004 after being injured in Iraq when the vehicle she was riding in struck a land mine.

Some 18 years later, the Purple Heart was sitting at Shelton Pawn and Jewelry on Howe Avenue.

“I went to the shop looking for a power tool. When the owner saw my hat (which reads 25th Infantry Division), he said ‘I have something to give you,’” said Martin, a longtime Shelton resident and an Army veteran who served in Vietnam. “That’s when he walked out with the Purple Heart and the plaque.”

Martin then went home and showed his wife, Audrey. After a quick search on the computer, Audrey said she found Awner’s address and phone number. She then texted Awner the photo, asking how to return it to her.

The Purple Heart’s return, however, is bittersweet for Awner, who did not even know her storage unit, which she had at Oakdale Self Storage in Wallingford, had been emptied.

“I was frantic,” Awner said when she received the text on June 17. “I was on a conference call when this text came in. I thought, ‘How did this person I did not know have my Purple Heart?’ The thought that someone went into my storage unit … it crushed my soul.”

Awner said she reached out to Oakdale Self Storage, which is headquartered in Shelton, and was told the unit was “gone.” She said they told her the unit - which she had had for a decade - was emptied for non-payment after they had unsuccessfully attempted to reach her by phone and certified mail.

Awner, who has been in the military for more than 18 years, said she has moved three times — from Connecticut to North Carolina to Washington State and where she now resides in El Paso — since she began paying for the unit.

She said the unit contained “everything from the first 27 years” of her life — from personal documents to medical records, family heirlooms and photos to the bloody boots, vest and clothes from when she was wounded in service at age 19.

“I was sobbing … my life is gone. It has been a very emotional time. Getting the Purple Heart back gives me some peace, but this has been challenging,” Awner said.

Awner said she had an automatic payment established for the unit cost and does not know why the bank stopped the payments. She said that she should have kept up on the status but feels the company failed to show any “human compassion” in trying to reach her.

While she does not know if the certified mailer was sent to her old North Carolina address, Awner said she never received any calls to her phone, which is the one she says is on file with the storage company.

“I feel like these people (at the storage company) didn’t care, and it hurts,” Awner said. “If anything comes from this I just want to shed light on the lack of human compassion that some people have for others.”

Attempts to reach personnel at the Oakdale Self Storage were unsuccessful.

Martin said the pawn shop owner, a veteran himself, told him he had received the award and plaque as part of a collection of material from a storage unit. Martin said the owner gave the award and plaque to him, trusting that he could track down the owner.

“I was surprised,” Martin said about his new-found project. “He said he had planned to take it to the VFW, but when he saw my hat, he gave it to me. I said OK. I took it, and my wife located the woman it belonged to.”

Martin is a lifetime member of Veterans of Foreign Wars 9460 in Stratford as well as the American Legion Post in Shelton. His wife, Audrey, is the VFW auxiliary chaplain.

“The owner of the pawn shop kept the Purple Heart in his safe and was going to bring it to a VFW,” Audrey said, “But when Russ came in wearing his Vietnam Army that he knew he was giving it to the right person to return.

“We were confident we could reach (Awner),” Audrey said. “We were determined to make this happen.”

Audrey said her first thought was reaching out to the VFW for assistance, but, with the name in hand, she said a simple computer search led to her location and even a phone number. She said she called the number, left a message and to her surprise, Awner quickly returned the call.

“It was an honor and a privilege to be able to do that for her,” Audrey said, adding that Awner was in tears on the phone when informed the medal had been recovered. “It meant so much to her.”

Awner is presently living in El Paso with the rank of master sergeant (E8) and plans to retire from the Army soon.

Awner had just turned 19 when she was deployed to Iraq. It was there she suffered a severed tendon from a piece of shrapnel when the Army transport vehicle she was riding in struck a land mine.

Two others riding with her also suffered injuries, but hers were the most severe.

A family member, Chuck Garbor who lives in Stratford and is a retired Navy Commander, met with Russ at the VFW Post to pick up Awner’s Purple Heart.

The VFW Post 9460 is actively looking for new members and auxiliary members. Applications are available at VFW Post 9460, 100 Veterans Blvd., Stratford.