Albert A. Van Bergen lost a leg to a German sniper in the battle for the Argonne Forest in World War I, one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the war. For his service, he was awarded the prestigious Purple Heart medal.
The fate of that medal, earned by blood and sacrifice, spanned the decades. It was stolen, then discovered in a garbage dump, before dedicated volunteers recently returned it to the loving hands of Van Bergen's grandson, Bob.
Vietnam veteran Bob Van Bergen, of Shakopee, had last seen the medal in 1972. Back then, he had been out of Vietnam for less than a year.
When Bob's father, WWII veteran Richard Vernon Van Bergen, died in July 1972, his wife presented Bob with the medals from his father's and grandfather's military service.
Bob combined them with his own medals, locking them in the glove box of his 1968 Mustang at his father’s funeral.
Within two hours, they were stolen.
And for almost a half century, they were all missing.
Then, July 6, Bob answered a phone call from his cousin Nancy Van Bergen. “Guess what? They found the Purple Heart.”
About 18 years ago, sanitation worker Wayne Ingebritson, of Janesville, was dumping trash at a Waseca County landfill when something purple caught his eye. As a fellow Vietnam War veteran, he knew its significance immediately.
Why that particular medal ended up in the landfill and how it got to Waseca at all remains a mystery.
For years, Ingebritson kept it safe and searched for its rightful owner. He visited Veterans Affairs offices and repeatedly declined offers from veterans groups to take the medal off his hands and find the owner for him.
It was important to Ingebritson that he personally made sure the owner was found. He did not want it to get lost or become a neglected project of a larger organization. He spent time at a library in Mankato poring over Purple Heart records.
“I thought, well, I’ll do my best,” Ingebritson said. “I’m sure glad I found it.”
Finally, Ingebritson saw an organization called Purple Hearts Reunited mentioned in the newspaper. He gave them a call. A little over a year later, he heard from them again.
Jen Moeller, Bob's second cousin and the great-granddaughter of Albert, received a call from Purple Hearts Reunited in late June asking whether she was a relative of the Van Bergen family. Moeller’s records were accessible due to her extensive research in her familial ancestry, allowing the organization to contact her.
Purple Hearts Reunited connected Moeller and Ingebritson. The two met at a Faribault Dairy Queen July 6, and traded stories. Ingebritson turned over the Purple Heart.
“I would have traveled anywhere to have picked it up,” Moeller said. “The Purple Heart has so many stories that are attached to it.”
Moeller’s aunt, Nancy, informed Bob of the Purple Heart’s recovery. Bob couldn’t believe it. He had long since given up any hope of getting the medal back.
When Robert Van Bergen waited at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for the second time to spend eight more months in Vietnam, he was certain that this time around, he was going to die. At 19 years old, he had seen more through his eager eyes than most people would care to see in a lifetime. And he counted himself lucky. You see, Van Bergen was an army clerk who kept attendance records. He never had to see hand to hand combat.
The same day she received it from Ingebritson, Moeller stood outside Bob’s house with the medal laid out in her hand. The Purple Heart is tattered but intact, with Alfred Van Bergen’s name inscribed on the back side.
Moeller believes she and Ingebritson were meant to be part of the story.
“I feel like I was meant to be its caretaker for however long it took me to figure out whose it was,” she said.
“He’s such a lovely person. He hugged me first, and then he looked at it. I think it was kind of surreal for him, that it was back in his possession and back in our family’s possession,” Moeller said. “He was very grateful.”
“It blows me away because this medal could have been lost forever had he not been at the landfill that day,” Bob said.
“[I was] elated. Emotional. Surprisingly emotional for something I thought I had forgot about after all those years,” Bob said. “[The medal has] had a rough journey.”
Purple Hearts Reunited is dedicated to returning lost medals to their owners or said owners’ kin.
“It happens more than most people know,” Bob said. “Especially with today’s younger generation, things that are generational don’t seem to mean as much.”
Years ago, Bob purchased duplicates of his own lost medals at a Minneapolis military antique store for $150. They now sit in a shadowbox designated for his eldest son when the time comes.
The rest of his family's medals remain missing, but the Purple Heart has been returned to its rightful place and serves as a tangible symbol of hope and restoration.