When Nicole Neumann was in ninth grade, she interviewed her grandpa, Earl “Sonny” Meyer, for an assignment. She asked the retired St. Peter farmer about his military service.
He spoke about sleepless nights in mountain foxholes while in the infantry during the Korean War, and fear-filled days as a rifleman and machine-gunner on the front lines. When he spoke of Army buddies, he became emotional: “I was afraid of this,” he told his granddaughter. “I guess this is why no veterans talk about the war.”
Then he told a story that stunned the rest of his family, a story he’d mostly kept to himself for half a century and, after it was revealed, prompted his three daughters to undertake a yearslong quest to have his sacrifice recognized.
He’d been injured in Korea during a hectic battle in which his platoon was trapped in the Kumhwa Valley in June 1951, south of the 38th parallel. Mortars rained down. Shrapnel hit his inner thigh and soaked his pants in blood. Meyer lay flat on the ground and radioed for air support. A medic bandaged him in the field and told Meyer he’d put his name in for a Purple Heart. When the American planes flew in, they were so low that Meyer made eye contact with a pilot. Meyer walked alongside an American tank that provided protection from continued mortar fire.
Meyer survived, the shrapnel still lodged in his leg. The medic who treated him, Meyer believes, died in the battle. Later, Meyer was on a hospital ship, the USS Repose, when a chaplain asked which company he was serving in: 7th Division, 31st Regiment, 2nd Platoon, K Company.
“You know there were only four guys who were actually able to come home” from that battle, the chaplain said. “You’re one of the lucky ones.” His company had been so damaged that it was put on reserve status.
Since Meyer told his story, his daughters have embarked on a mission to secure for their father the Purple Heart they believe he has long deserved.
“I wouldn’t have done it myself,” Meyer said, “but the girls wanted to do it.”
The mission has proved more complicated and frustrating than his daughters ever imagined. More than a decade later, they’re still working on their father’s behalf to have bestowed upon him the oldest military honor still presented to American service members. More than 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been given out since 1782, honoring service members who have been wounded or killed as a result of enemy action.
“It’s incredibly difficult, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility,” said Nathan Tish, the Nicollet County veterans service officer and one of many who have advocated on Meyer’s behalf. “I know how important this would be to the family and what a cool story this would be to the entire community, and I want to see a positive and favorable decision.”
Meyer’s daughters have spoken with members of the Minnesota congressional delegation and staffers. His case made it all the way to the Army Review Boards Agency, which said there wasn’t enough evidence for a Purple Heart. Longtime family friend Marty Davis, president and CEO of Cambria, has taken up the cause. Davis met with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., last week to discuss Meyer’s situation.
One reason for the lack of evidence is that Meyer never visited an aid station after being bandaged in the field, so medical records from the immediate aftermath don’t exist. And records that did exist may have burned in a massive 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which destroyed about 18 million official military files — including the majority of records for Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960.
“I don’t know why they don’t just take my dad’s word for it,” said one of Meyer’s daughters, Sandy Baker of New Buffalo, Mich.
“A lot of people can make up stories,” her dad replied with a laugh.
“I don’t want to give up,” said Baker. “It’s of no fault of his own that his records are gone.”
In 2018, the Army’s Awards and Decorations Branch sent letters to Meyer and former Congressman Jason Lewis, who had advocated for Meyer, stating that his wounds had to have been treated by a medical officer and made a matter of official record in order to be awarded a Purple Heart.
“With the passage of time, we understand the difficulties of locating the necessary documentation,” wrote Patricia L. Hill, the branch’s deputy chief. “Please know this response is not intended to be deterring or overly bureaucratic. Nevertheless, we must review original source material in order to maintain the integrity of the Purple Heart.”
Meyer is a hale 93 years old. His wife passed away in January. He has been active in St. Peter’s veterans community, helping line the main thoroughfare with American flags while serving in an honor guard at veterans’ funerals. During the pandemic he has hosted area veterans for coffee in his garage and driveway every Tuesday morning in lieu of meeting at the American Legion; they bring masks and their own coffee mugs, sip coffee from a 30-cup percolator, and talk for hours.
Meyer still experiences some post-traumatic stress. At a granddaughter’s track meet, when the starter pistol went off, he nearly dropped to the ground. He ducks at unexpected fireworks. When he’d pick corn with his two-row corn picker, he’d have flashbacks of running through the reeds in Korea.
His physical injury has pained him his entire life. Doctors told him the shrapnel was too close to the sciatic nerve, so surgery to remove it was too risky. Sometimes he’d use a magnet to move the shrapnel and ease his pain. But Meyer was a farmer for four decades. Farmers don’t complain.
Nor do farmers ask for recognition, especially for something that happened a lifetime ago, and especially when there’s lingering guilt that he was one of the lucky ones who made it out alive.
“It was something Dad never wanted to pursue,” said his middle daughter, Cindy Meyer of Le Sueur. “Just a humble guy: ‘No, that’s all right.’ And we’d say, ‘You deserve it!’ ”
“He doesn’t like to have a big deal made about it,” said Barb Wright, his oldest daughter, of St. Peter. “But we want him to have that honor that he deserves. And I know he’d like us to see him get it, and his grandkids and great-grandkids, too.”
“So many times Purple Hearts are given to families after their hero is gone from this Earth,” reiterated Cindy Meyer. “At that point, it doesn’t really matter. The soldier is the one that deserves to know he received the honor.”
Davis, the Cambria president and CEO, has spoken with plenty of Washington power brokers about Meyer, from former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman to Rep. Tom Emmer, from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul to, earlier last week, Graham. He doesn’t know whether it will work, but he wants to give it every chance
“It’s a very bureaucratic process, a big system,” Davis said. “A lot of people have been through the Department of Defense, and the records vary in thoroughness. I think the department is trying to make sure these recognitions have the integrity they need to have. That process makes it very arduous, as it probably should be.
“If you made those sacrifices, you weren’t really looking for the credit, but you get to the point in your life when that validation is important to you.”