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Air Force finds stories by replacing veterans' lost medals

March 14, 2015 (Photo Credit: (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Ian Hoachlander))

Some people look at a military medal and only see a piece of metal or cloth.

But Will Brown knows that those medals are part of a veteran's legacy. In other words, they are history.

"Each one of these medals has a story behind it and means something to not only the veteran but also their family members," Brown told Air Force Times.

Brown is chief of the Air Force Evaluations and Recognitions Program Branch, which provides replacement medals to Air Force veterans or their families. His office is based out of the Air Force Personnel Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

His staff of eight fields about 45,000 requests per year, Brown said. Each request typically involves replacing nine medals per person.

Brown's staff works with the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis to verify what awards the veterans have received, he said. The process can take between 60 and 90 days per request, depending on how much research needs to be done.

One of the toughest parts of the job is responding to veterans who feel they deserve an award that is not listed in their official record, Brown said. Other times, his staff has to ask veterans if they still have their records because a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center destroyed between 16 million and 18 million official military personnel files.

"Unfortunately, sometimes we are unable to do that – but we go through extensive research to try and do what we can for our airmen," he said.

His office can replace any award issued by the U.S. military, including the highest award for valor.

"A Medal of Honor is a unique medal to replace," Brown said. "That is because the Medal of Honor – most people may or may not know – is engraved with the individual's name on it. So we worked with the Medal of Honor society to provide the Medal of Honor replacements to those recipients."

The only medals Brown's staff can't replace are those awarded by a foreign government, such as the Vietnam Campaign Medal. Still, his staff can replace other awards that Vietnam veterans may have only come to appreciate later in life.

"Some of them may not have felt as welcomed when they came back, so they didn't really look at the military medals, which they earned while they were serving," he said. "Now they're in their later years and their children and even grandchildren are asking them about their service. Those military medals mean a lot to not only the veteran but also their family members."

Among the many veterans Brown and his staff have helped, one case he vividly remembers is when a veteran in a wheelchair came to the Air Force Personnel Center.

"He was emotional because he had misplaced or someone had taken his Bronze Star," Brown said. "The only thing he wanted was a Bronze Star."

Brown's staff quickly confirmed that he had received the award and they gave him a new Bronze Star on the spot, he said.

"He broke down in tears because it meant that much to him," Brown said.

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