OWATONNA, Minn. (AP) — One might say 20-year-old Kyle Lafontaine couldn’t be more down on his luck. He is homeless, jobless and has a defunct car to boot.
While tending to his broken down car on the side of the road in rural Waseca Monday night, a shiny glimmer in the gravel caught his eye. That glimmer came from a Purple Heart medallion that had been missing for 60 years from Charles T. Sutlief, a soldier who lost his life in battle in 1950 during the Korean War.
“I saw the guy’s name engraved on the back and the next morning I woke up and Googled his name,” Lafontaine said. “I found out he died in a Korean War casualty, killed in action.”
Lafontaine immediately started researching the name engraved on the back of the medal, hoping to find the family of the soldier to which the award belonged.
With Internet searches turning up nothing but generalized information, Lafontaine contacted Staff Sgt. Joshawa Levine at the Army Recruiting offices in Owatonna to solicit his expertise on locating the family of the fallen soldier.
“I called around and got ahold of the town there, through them started calling everyone with that last name and ended up finding Charles’ cousin,” Levine said. “His cousin was overjoyed, said the medal has been missing for 60 years.”
Levine said he thought it was very patriotic that someone who didn’t know who the award belonged to would respect the Purple Heart enough to try and give it back to the family. Levine passed along the Sutliefs’ contact information to Lafontaine.
After speaking with Charles’ cousin, Delancy Sutlief, Lafontaine was given the phone number to Charles’ only surviving brother, LeRoy Sutlief. At 85 years old, LeRoy currently lives in Rochester with his wife, Alice, and had all but given up on ever finding his brother’s lost Purple Heart.
“We’ve looked for it for I don’t know how many years,” LeRoy said. “Nobody seemed to know where it was.”
LeRoy said the family had requested a duplicate Purple Heart medallion from the military, but nothing would take the place of the original medal for his brother’s sacrifice to his country.
“This is really something. I’m just so tickled,” LeRoy said.
LeRoy said Charles was the youngest of his five brothers, all of whom have since died. Charles went into the service in 1950 at the age of 17 and died in battle a couple months later in August, just shortly after his 18th birthday.
When Delancy got the call from Lafontaine saying the Purple Heart had been found, he was shocked, but happy to hear it was being returned to the family.
“Most of these young guys these days don’t know what that Purple Heart means,” Delancy said. “But (Lafontaine) has got a heart of gold. There probably wouldn’t be many people who would take the effort to find out where that belongs.”
For Lafontaine, it was never an option to do anything other than give the medal back to the Sutlief family.
“To someone who collects them, an authentic Purple Heart might be worth a decent amount of money, but to me it’s worth nothing besides getting it back to the person who owned it,” Lafontaine said.
At only 20 years of age, Lafontaine said he already understands the importance of heritage and history, along with the great sacrifices made by the veterans being honored across the world today.
“When I heard Veterans Day was (Thursday), I just figured it would be the best thing for all the veterans to hear because then they know there’s someone good out there,” he said. “As soon as I got ahold of Charles’ family, I felt like I was worth a million dollars.”
For a young man who describes himself as simply looking to hold a job, find his own place to live and survive with what he’s been given, finding the medal has been a bright spot in Lafontaine’s shadowed life.
“I try to find good people to talk to in this world, to help out,” he said. “And for some reason I’ve been meeting a lot of older people I help out and they turn out to be veterans. I am just doing this with the intentions that I may have some good karma because I believe highly in that.”
The Sutlief family met Lafontaine in Owatonna on Thursday to exchange the Purple Heart.
“I feel like the guy who died may have used me in a spiritually guided way to find where the medallion belongs,” Lafontaine said.
The legacy of Charles Sutlief will undoubtedly live on, not only through the story of the recovered Purple Heart after 60 years of loss, but also through LeRoy’s son and great-grandson, who are named after Charles; and that is more than enough to assure Lafontaine he did the right thing.
“It makes me feel good to help out,” he said. “I’d give up any time in my day to do something like that. I just hope people can see how good it is that someone just wants to do good in this world.”
By ASHLEY PETERSON
Owatonna People’s Press
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