- Associated Press - Monday, December 1, 2014

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - Retired Air Force Reserve Maj. Edmund Zander flew hundreds of missions in World War II as a navigator in the Pacific, often ferrying GIs into combat zones and wounded troops to safety.

Living in a Plano retirement community decades later after relocating from the Schertz area, he sought to replace a few missing medals and got a big surprise.

A small staff working out of a basement office on Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph was about to mail the medals when he stopped by while in town.

Among the many medals that program official Kipp Nave handed to him that day was one Zander didn’t know he had earned: a rarely granted Presidential Unit Citation.

A tour inside the Medals Room, as it is called, reveals a treasure trove of awards - thousands stacked from floor to ceiling. It holds everything from the Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Purple Heart to citations for service in conflicts since World War I.

It’s like the Air Force’s little Fort Knox, holding $2.1 million worth of medals. Until last week, no journalist had set foot in the room. The Air Force has never said anything about the program at Randolph, which started in the 1960s. Now it wants veterans to know about the repository, especially World War II veterans, who are dying at a rate of more than 500 a day.

Some veterans ask for replacement medals as a way to close the loop on their lives and leave the awards to loved ones. Vietnam veterans who turned their back on the war after coming home frequently come to the Air Force after re-evaluating the conflict and their role in it. In other cases, children of deceased veterans ask for replacement medals in hopes of learning more about their father’s or mother’s service.

Often, they get citations they didn’t realize existed.

“Years and years later, decades later, they came back with medals I didn’t even know I had,” said Mike Dickerson, a Navy veteran of Vietnam and the spokesman for the Air Force Personnel Center, whose basement holds the Medals Room.

There’s a story behind every request.

The Air Force civilian overseeing the program, Will Brown, helped a family upgrade a Bronze Star citation for an airman killed in Vietnam. He met with the family at the personnel center and shared their evidence with officials in the Pentagon.

“The family felt that he, based on the research they had found, should have something more deserving,” Brown, chief of the personnel center’s recognition and evaluation program, told the San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1vbHghH ).

The airman was posthumously given a Silver Star.

Just how many medals have been given over the years is impossible to know. A typical veteran or family member gets six to nine medals.

Boxes of medals rise 6 feet high and line the shelves of the Medals Room. The eight-member staff, mostly made up of Goodwill Industries’ contractors, researches the medal requests, a process that can take 90 days.

Federal law grants veterans and their families a free, onetime replacement set of awarded military medals and ribbons. Like Zander, many people go to their congressional representatives to obtain medals, but they can file paperwork directly with the personnel center.

Dozens of medals are in stock there, some of them well-known, such as the Medal of Honor, and its equivalent, the Air Force Cross, but there are some here no one has likely heard of, except for those who’ve received them.

One is the Antarctica Service Medal, which has an emblem of an airman in heavy winter clothing on one side and the words “Courage, Service, Devotion” on the back.

The Women’s Army Corps Service Medal hangs from an olive-drab ribbon with yellow trim. A likeness of Gen. John J. Pershing anchors the World War I Occupation of Germany Medal.

The last of soldiers and airmen from that conflict are gone, but the medal remains in stock in case a veteran’s family wants a replacement.

Researching cases isn’t always easy, in part because documentation is more difficult when veterans’ memories have faded. Brown and his staff, led by Nave, a Goodwill contractor, search records in the National Archives and historians’ offices in hopes of finding facts.

“Obviously, we can only work with what we have,” said Brown, 48, who lives in Schertz and is an Air Force veteran of the Gulf War.

That was more than enough for Zander, 89.

At 18, he joined the Army Air Corps and was trained to be a navigator after scoring well on a set of tests. He was commissioned a second lieutenant six days before turning 19 and was sent to the Pacific.

There, he was part of eight campaigns in places with familiar names - the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, Luzon and Okinawa. And long after, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with silver and bronze stars symbolizes his journey.

A shadow box holds that medal and the Presidential Unit Citation.

Asked what those medals mean to him, Zander talked of a close high school friend who was drafted into the infantry and killed at Normandy on D-Day. He talks of his faith in God, of being thankful for his fate.

Betty Zander, 86, finishes the thought.

“I think it means more than anybody could ever imagine,” she said.

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com


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