Forty-six years after he was killed in action, the medals of a Vietnam War hero are in the hands of his daughter through the perseverance of a police officer and a veterans’ official in North Dakota and a cemetery manager in Spanaway.
Army Sgt. Robert Gerald Elgin was 29 at the time of his death in 1968. His body was returned to the U.S. for burial at Bethel Cemetery in Spanaway, next to his parents. His grave marker, worn by weather and time but still legible, is inscribed with his name, rank and PH, for Purple Heart. Not noted is another medal, the Silver Star, one of America’s highest honors for bravery in combat. It was awarded to Elgin posthumously along with the South Vietnamese Military Merit Medal, given by the Republic of Vietnam to soldiers for extreme bravery.
It wasn’t until Mike Nason bought both medals at an auction April 17 in Minot, N.D. that they began winding their way to one of Elgin’s daughters, who now has them as a cherished memento of a father she barely knew.
Nason, a captain in the Ward County Sheriff Department in North Dakota, found Elgin’s name on the back of the medals. It’s unclear how they had become possessions of the person who sold them to him, but Nason, who collects military artifacts, believed there was a more rightful owner somewhere.
“Once I figured out what the situation was and realized there may be somebody out there who should have these, I wanted to get them reunited,” Nason told the Minot Daily News.
Nason enlisted the help of Kathy Holte, administrative assistant at the Ward County Veterans Service Office in Minot. Through an Internet search, Holte learned where Elgin was buried and got in touch with Laurie Porter, who is employed by Bethany Lutheran Church as manager of the church-owned cemetery.
Porter is also a genealogist. She used her experience at tracing family histories to locate Elgin’s daughter, Katherine Ferry, who lives in Tulsa, Okla.
Porter located Ferry in two days, mostly by digging online. An e-mail address Ferry left when she signed the Virtual Wall, a website for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., led to contacts with Facebook friends, who let Ferry know Porter was looking for her, and why. Ferry called Porter, who shared the other connections Ferry needed to have the medals sent to her by the veterans’ agency in Minot. They arrived at Ferry’s home last Thursday, “and she’s thrilled,” Porter said. “She only has a vague memory of her father, so this is really important to her.”
Ferry e-mailed Porter a blurry, black-and-white photograph of her dad, the only one she has of him. It shows him in what appears to be his Army uniform, holding eggs in both hands during an Easter egg hunt.
Ferry was 3 when he died, and her sister, who now lives in Arizona, were adopted by relatives and raised in separate homes after their parents divorced. Ferry told the Daily News that she tried in recent years to get information about her father.
According to Porter, Elgin was born in Hoquiam and was the member of a Pierce County family. He died April 4, 1968, in a battle in the Thua Thien province in South Vietnam. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, 505th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade.
Elgin’s military record and the story behind the recovery of his Silver Star and Military Merit Medal (the whereabouts of his Purple Heart is unknown) were part of a Memorial Day ceremony May 26 at Bethany Cemetery. Elgin is among several military veterans, including one from the Civil War, who are buried there.
Porter, who lives in Kent, does family research for anyone who asks. She said involvement with uniting Elgin’s medals with his daughter was a little more special, given the timing with Memorial Day.
“I’m glad I could help,” she said.
(Reprinted from The Dispatch, a newspaper that covers south Pierce County.)