Veteran sues storage company after Purple Heart found in Shelton

Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich left, commanding general of the 94th Regional Readiness Command, pins a Purple Heart on Army Reserve Specialist Heather Awner of Wallingford during a ceremony at the Army Reserve Center, New Haven, in 2004.

Maj. Gen. Dennis Laich left, commanding general of the 94th Regional Readiness Command, pins a Purple Heart on Army Reserve Specialist Heather Awner of Wallingford during a ceremony at the Army Reserve Center, New Haven, in 2004.

Contributed photo /

SHELTON — A Texas Army reservist has filed suit against Oakdale Self Storage, claiming the company negligently cleared her storage unit at its Wallingford location, causing her severe emotional distress. 

Army Reserve Msg. Heather Awner, a Purple Heart Award recipient and former Connecticut resident now living in El Paso, Texas, is suing Oakdale, which has a location in Shelton, as well as employees Chris Oliwa and Kevin Oliwa for negligence, statutory theft and violation of the Servicemembers' Civil Relief Act, among a host of counts. 

Awner became aware of the loss of her storage unit’s contents in July, when Shelton residents Russ and Audrey Martin reached out to her to tell her they had possession of her Purple Heart. Russ Martin had been given the Purple Heart, with Awner’s name, by an employee at Shelton Pawn and Jewelry. 

“This is not just about some property,” attorney Garrett Denniston of Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante, P.C., who represents Awner, told Hearst Connecticut Media. “What’s been taken from Heather are priceless and irreplaceable memories."

Denniston said Awner made every effort to deal with this privately before taking legal action. 

"This was my last resort," said Awner. "It's sad. More than 20 years of my life are gone ... just gone. I do not want anyone else to have to go through this."

“The loss of her personal possessions caused (Awner) financial loss as well as significant emotional distress as a result of the loss of priceless possessions which were essentially a representation of her childhood, formative years and early years in service of her country,” the suit states. 

When contacted, Kevin Oliwa of Oakdale Self Storage declined to comment on the suit. 

Awner was awarded the Purple Heart after being injured in Iraq in 2004 when the vehicle she was riding in struck a land mine. 

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 to where she now resides in El Paso — since she began paying for the unit at the Wallingford location. 

She told Hearst Connecticut Media 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. 

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. 

When informed about the discovery of her Purple Heart, Awner said she called Oakdale and learned that her possessions had been destroyed, all except the Purple Heart, which later turned up at the Shelton pawn shop. 

The suit states that Oakdale officials claimed to have mailed notice to Awner at one of her previous addresses and called her cell phone as well. 

According to the suit, Oakdale provided a spreadsheet showing they called Awner’s number on numerous occasions. But in Awner’s suit, she disputes the claim, saying call logs from her phone carrier showed no calls from Oakdale to her number during the relevant time period. 

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. 

Awner also contacted the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office for help finding her missing uniform, boots, and vest. 

"We have called pawn shops and the refuse company where items from the storage facility were discarded in an effort to assist," said Elizabeth Benton, chief of communications and policy with the Office of the Attorney General. "To date, we have been unable to find these missing items."

Benton said Awner served the country with “distinction and honor, and the loss of these items —including the bulletproof military vest that literally saved her life — is a tragedy.  

“We are grateful that the actions of alert good samaritans helped reunite Ms. Awner with her lost Purple Heart, but this never should have happened,” Benton added. “We understand that the storage facility has changed their procedures regarding notification to military veterans, and we hope and expect that this type of unacceptable miscommunication will never occur again.” 

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com