The small rectangular box wasn’t going anywhere.
Pat Davis clutched the case in her hands. Inside was a Purple Heart medal, a set of silver wings given to graduates of paratrooper training and a purple bar to be worn on a military uniform.
All had been awarded to her father, Jackie Nesbit Jr., after his death in 1945. They had been lost for more than 50 years, and Davis was hesitant to put the box down.
“I don’t let it out of my sight now in the house,” Davis said.
She was reunited with the mementos of her father on Christmas Day.
Surrounded by family and friends, Davis was presented with the Purple Heart medal given to her father after his death in World War II. She had feared that the medal was lost in the 1950s and had accepted that it was gone. But with the help of her son-in-law and supporters from all over the country, she has them back.
“I now have a part of my dad back with me,” Davis said. “That was the best Christmas I’ve ever had.”
Davis never knew her father. She was born in 1945, while Nesbit was serving in Europe during World War II.
He was a paratrooper with the 17th Airborne 466th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, one of the elite groups of U.S. Army soldiers who would parachute into battle.
Nesbit was killed in action during Operation Varsity, an airborne effort to cross the Rhine River in the final months of World War II. The 21-year-old died just 69 days after Davis was born. For his sacrifice, Nesbit was awarded the Purple Heart, which is given to soldiers wounded in combat and to the next of kin for those killed during service.
Davis doesn’t remember ever seeing the medal when she was a girl. The family moved often, and it was lost sometime during the 1950s. Though disappointing, Davis had stopped thinking about the loss.
But in late 2013, it was again brought to her attention.
Someone in the family had posted a photo of Nesbit on Facebook. Davis’ daughter was asking about it, and the discussion turned to the Purple Heart. Her son-in-law, Mike Widner, became particularly fascinated by the missing medal and started to track down information about Nesbit.
“When he gets a hold of something, he doesn’t let it go,” Davis said.
Working with an investigator who specializes in tracking down lost personal items for family members of veterans, Widner was able to locate the medal. It had been sold and purchased three separate times to collectors. A ban on buying and selling Purple Hearts was overturned in 2012. Since then, the items have become popular commodities for military memorabilia enthusiasts.
Widner followed the trail until it led to the current owner, who was willing to sell the medal for $1,200.
“When I heard that, I thought it was too much. Just knowing that my son-in-law wanted to get it for me was good enough for me,” Davis said. “That was the last I heard about it.”
But behind the scenes, Widner was reaching out to people throughout the country to raise the money to buy the Purple Heart back. One of those was Kory Wood, a Whiteland native and current Indianapolis resident. Wood had known Widner and his family for years. When he learned
about the efforts to recover the medal, he immediately volunteered to help.
“I told them that I didn’t care what it took, I would make sure that medal was in her hands by Christmas,” he said.
Together, they started an Internet campaign to raise the money needed to buy the Purple Heart. Widner reached out to fellow veterans that he knew and other supporters. The effort raised most of the money in two days. Wood covered the final amount.
“The cost was nothing compared to what she had to go through, with her dad dying,” Wood said. “It was something that I felt I had to do.”
On Christmas, Davis and her family gathered together to celebrate. Wood was there, too.
In the middle of the festivities, Widner brought everyone together in one room. He gave a speech about the importance of family and started telling the story of Nesbit.
“Right then, I knew that they had the medal,” Davis said. “I was beside myself. I was sobbing, my daughter was sobbing. Everyone in the room was.”
Wood was moved by the scene. Though he had only met Davis in passing, they embraced.
“She was the happiest woman in the world. It was a good feeling,” Wood said.
Since receiving the medal, Davis has been trying to find out a way to thank all of those who donated to the cause.
“I have no idea how many were a part of this. Just knowing that there was love out there for a wrong that needed to be right is amazing to me,” Davis said. “I praise every day that God has allowed me to have a chance to have a piece of him.”