For many years Beth Settle has used her metal detector to find treasures in some unlikely places. She’s combed beaches, rivers and lakes in places such as the Cayman Islands, Aruba and Canada, unearthing foreign coins, jade rings, jewelry and even a solid gold diabetic bracelet.

So when her machine began to buzz a few feet from the ocean in the tiny village of Hopkins, Belize, in June, Settle didn’t get too excited. “It sounded like a quarter,” she said.

About 4 inches down, Settle saw something tattered and purple and thought it was a toy. When she cleaned it off, however, the Army and Air Force Reserve veteran knew she’d found something special.

It was a Purple Heart, the military decoration given to those who have been killed or wounded in combat. There was a name on the back of the medal, and lucky for Settle, it was unique: Terrance Rybarczyk.

Settle, who lives in Virginia, began to wonder how a Purple Heart wound up on a beach in Belize. It’s certainly not something a tourist would bring on vacation. She served for more than 20 years after joining the Army after the Vietnam War ended, so she was aware of soldiers who faced troubles. Maybe a disillusioned vet tossed it into the sea and it washed up here, she thought.

Instead, her investigation brought her to Andover, Minn., and connected the stories of three vets from different eras.

Several attempts to reach Rybarczyk in late June failed. Settle finally found a connection with an acquaintance through internet searches and had them contact the man whose name was etched on the medal. A few nights ago, Rybarczyk called, surprised but relieved.

“He was pretty happy, but he was almost speechless,” Settle said.

Rybarczyk’s story of how the Purple Heart ended up in the sand in a remote village turned out to be a happy one, too.

A Vietnam vet, Rybarczyk was wounded during a reconnaissance mission in the jungle, taking four bullets and some grenade shrapnel. He was in recovery for months, during which time the Purple Heart was pinned to his hospital pillow.

Of his service commendations, there “are very few I’m proud of,” Rybarczyk said during an interview Friday. “My combat infantry badge means I went to the dance. I earned this Purple Heart.”

Rybarczyk’s daughter, Gretchen Marie, is a Navy aviator who married another Navy aviator. She is currently serving aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Mediterranean Sea.

When Gretchen got married in Belize in September 2015, her father offered his Purple Heart as “something old” for good luck. They pinned it underneath her dress to make sure no one thought it was Gretchen’s medal. After the wedding, the party members walked down the beach to take photos. By the time they returned, it was gone.

“We searched and searched and searched and couldn’t find it,” Rybarczyk said. “You know how it is, you drop something on the beach and the sand eats it.”

Gretchen was heartbroken. It was her special day, however, so her dad “didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. But I was devastated,” he said.

Ten months had passed since the medal was lost, so Rybarczyk figured he’d never see it again. He knew he could apply for a replacement, “but it’s just not the same thing.”

Settle has found many valuable items with her hobby, but she always tries to find the owner if at all possible. “It’s all about the hunt, right?” she said.

“This is the most important, exciting thing I’ve found in my life,” Settle said.

On Friday, Rybarczyk was waiting for the medal to reach his Andover home.

“It’s turned out kind of neat,” he said. “All three of us involved are vets or in the service, so we know how important this is. This lady is certainly a hero, at least in my eyes.”

 

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin