It was hidden in a tree in Milton, Vt., tucked into a sappy hollow the way a Boy Scout buries a time capsule. A maple tree, they said, because it was in Vermont, hundreds of miles from Nebraska or Texas, where it should have been, and dozens of years after the last time anyone saw it. Wrapped tightly in plastic and shoved inside an old VCR cassette: Robert Gene Woody’s 1945 Good Conduct Medal.
Volunteers for Vermont’s Annual Green Up Day on May 3 also found a handful of commemorative coins, a Veterans of Foreign Wars medal from the 1930s, a Spanish American War medal, a woman's Relief Corps medal and a Civil War pay stub for Pvt. Lewis N. Lucas of the Vermont 2nd Light Artillery in the tree. The medals bore price tags, as if for sale.
It happens more often than you think, said Capt. Zachariah Fike of Georgia, Vt., founder of nonprofit Purple Hearts Reunited. Over the years, friends and family lose their loved ones’ military medals. Sometimes the awards are stolen and resold.
"I can only speculate," Fife said. "But the way they were priced, like a trade-show, I imagine some kid stole the medals from a vendor, got nervous, and hid them in that tree."
Other times children and widows bury them away to forget a painful death. Medals show up decades later in every place imaginable, broken links to a soldier’s sacrifice. Purple Hearts Reunited has been connecting families with loved ones’ medals since 2009, often initiating healing and closure.
Milton police called Fike, and Fike began to research.
Robert G. Woody enlisted in the Navy on Jan. 3, 1942, in Dallas, Texas. He served as carpenter's mate second class on the USS Hughes until the end of World War II. As a member of the Hughes, he saw action at the Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal, the Battle of Santa Cruz, the Aleutian Islands, the Gilbert Islands, the invasion of Makin Atoll, the Marshall Islands, Hollandia, New Guinea and Leyte, among others. He would go on to serve a total of 30 years in the Navy, even serving a tour in Vietnam.
His only son lives in Sidney, Neb. Fike picked up the phone.
Myron Gene Woody, 62, didn't have much contact with his father early in his life. As a child, he lived with his mother and stepfather in Potter, Neb. In high school, after his stepfather kicked him out of the house, Myron lived with Robert Woody and his second wife in San Antonio, Texas, until Robert rejoined the service. But even in the same home, father and son never talked about Navy life.
“For a lot of these families, it's the first time they’re hearing the truth,” Fike said. “There’s was not a lot of information sharing in WWII. We do this to celebrate life.”
After 30 years of active service, Robert retired. He died of lung cancer in 1982.
Three decades after his father’s death, Myron commutes between Sidney, Neb., and WaKeeney, Kan., as a production supervisor for Reilly Oil.
Myron doesn’t know much about his father, the bloody battles, the Tommy guns and the years at sea. But every day, he carries an old portrait of Robert folded into his wallet, the only picture he has of his father. As soon as Milton police release the medals, Myron said he will have one more way to connect with the soldier he barely knew.
“When my dad passed away, I got an old Timex watch and a few shirts, and that was all,” Myron said. “This would be one of the very few things of his past that I’d have.”