Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tennessee man rescues Purple Heart from antique store.

Soldier's medal returned to family

Posted: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 12:00 am

Randall Harris, 61, drives hundreds of miles each week in eastern Tennessee as a field representative for a medical equipment business.

  On occasion, he's been known to pull off the road for an interesting antique store.

  It's why he was peering into a display case last spring in Maryville, Tenn., when he noticed a Purple Heart medal in its velvet case.

  As Harris said in his soft Southern voice, it bothered him to see that medal — the award the nation gives to its wounded or killed military personnel — on a junk-filled shelf of old lapel pins and pendants.

  Harris asked to look at the Purple Heart more closely and saw the words "PFC Dewey A. Tafoya" and "1-7-45" engraved on the back. The clerk told him he could have it for just $95.

  "I thought about that medal every day for a week and it just didn't seem right that it was just sitting there," Harris said. "You knew that there was some family, somewhere, that would want that medal."

   So Harris bought it and started searching.

  Dewey A. Tafoya was the oldest of the six children of Amarante and Cedelia Tafoya, who lived near Boone. The young soldier had moved to Lafayette, Colo., to live with his grandparents while a teenager and went to high school there. His father had died and his mother had her hands full with the other Tafoya children.

  "I went to school for a couple of years in Lafayette, too," explained Joyce Helen Tafoya Fugate, the youngest of the children, who lives in Wildwood, Fla.

  ''Dewey would walk me to school every day and he'd tease me, the way older brothers do,'' the 79-year-old Joyce laughed. ''He'd say, 'C'mon, Joycie, cry for me' and of course, I'd start crying. Even when he was in the Army, he'd put a P.S. at the bottom of letters home that said 'Tell Joycie to cry for me.' Of course, I thought all my brothers were terrific.''

 Joyce had two older brothers in the service during World War II. Dewey was in the paratroops, a member of the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment. Next in line was Ernesto, a Navy master machinist serving off the Philippine Islands. There was a third older brother — Ruben — but his time in uniform wouldn't come until Korea.

   Whatever the Tafoya family has paid in federal taxes over the years, Uncle Sam has gotten more than his money's worth. The walls of Ernesto Tafoya's house are covered in photographs of family members in uniform — from World War II to Iraq.

   Randall Harris isn't a veteran, but he likes history and when he began searching for Dewey Tafoya he initially went to military websites. Fairly quickly he identified Tafoya as a member of the 193rd GIR. He found unit histories and personal stories by veterans of the group. On Jan. 7, they were fighting in the cold and snow near Bastogne, Belgium, repulsing the last major German attack of the war.

  "It was pretty clear that Dewey went into the Battle of the Bulge right around Christmas and he was killed in combat on January 7," Harris said. "He was very young (23 years old). It was strange that I could read about his outfit and where they were fighting on the day he was killed, but I still didn't know anything about his family."

  Army records indicated Tafoya had enlisted from Colorado, so Harris went to the 1930 Colorado Census records and after a few false starts, found the Tafoya family. Ultimately, he zeroed in on the Pueblo area and he telephoned Holy Family Catholic Church looking for Ruben Tafoya, who had passed away in 2003. Ruben's obituary had sketched in much of the family tree, including a deceased older brother, Dewey.

  "A niece of Ruben Tafoya telephoned me and urged me to call her aunt in Florida, because she was Dewey's sister," Harris said. "In fact, (Joyce) beat me to the punch and called me, but I was out of the office. I still have that voice message from her — I saved it — because her voice was so full of the excitement at hearing something about her brother's medal. She didn't know he'd ever been awarded it."

  That was in July. It took Harris about four months of searching to find the Tafoya family and when he did, he sent them all the material he'd found along the way — the unit history, the personal accounts of soldiers in Dewey's unit. And he sent the Purple Heart to Joyce.

  "We thought she should have it," said brother Ernesto, who seems pretty spry and active. But, he's 85 and he thought his younger sister was a better choice as caretaker of a family treasure.

  "How do you repay someone for something like this?" Ernesto Tafoya said with some wonder, talking about Harris' search for a family he'd never met.

  His wife, Simona, leafed through the notebook of materials that Harris had compiled, including a color photograph of the Henri Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium, where Dewey is buried. The family had known that part of Dewey's story. Years ago, they'd made the journey to see Dewey's grave.

  "Mr. Harris put so much work into this," Simona Tafoya said. "And he wouldn't even let us pay him the $95 he spent buying the medal."

  How Dewey Tafoya's Purple Heart ended up in a Tennessee antique store will never be known. It did but it was found.

  "It seemed like such a dishonor to me to see that medal just sitting there with junk," Harris explained.

  No, he wouldn't take money from the Tafoyas for his time and efforts. He wants to see them in person one day and the feeling is mutual.

  "It was an honor to do it," Harris said. "I wanted that medal to find its home."

Sean P Eagan

Former Chairman American Cold War Veterans
Life Member Veterans of Foreign Wars
716 720-4000