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Purple Heart connects grandson, late-grandfather

Tim Croft
The Star

Gavin Lee was on a search.

The only grandchild of Thomas Eugene Lee who never met his grandfather, Gavin, 15, wanted to know more about the man’s life, his military service, both the heroism and the cost tolled.

“I just wanted to know him,” Gavin said.

Monday, Gavin took another step toward that understanding when he was presented with the Purple Heart Thomas Eugene Lee was awarded during his service in Vietnam.

Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners Sandy Quinn, Jr. was on hand to present Gavin the medal.

“We thought this was special,” said Joe Paul, the county’s Veteran’s Services Officer, adding later to Gavin, “He was a true American hero.”

To start, return to late December of 1967 in Dongtau Province, right outside of Saigon, said Paul, who served in the same area.

Specialist 4 Thomas Lee was assigned to the U.S. Army’s 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division.

In a matter of weeks, days really, the North Vietnamese would launch the Tet offensive which changed the course of the war in significant ways.

Riding in a transport truck, Thomas Lee was wounded when the truck hit a land mine.

He was awarded the Purple Heart on Dec. 27, 1967.

Thomas Eugene Lee died too young at 54 due to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, one of a spectrum of diseases linked to exposure to Agent Orange, Paul noted.

Fast forward and the medal, possibly or possibly not lost during Hurricane Michael, went missing.

No matter how hard or where she looked, Nadine Lee, Thomas’ widow and Gavin’s grandmother could not locate it.

Nadine Lee turned to Paul and Lynn Lanier in the Veteran’s Services Office and as it turned out, veterans or their heirs have a one-time only opportunity to replace a lost medal such as a Purple Heart.

Paul and Lanier helped Nadine Lee navigate the red tape and the new medal showed up last week.

“They work really fast,” Nadine Lee said of Paul and Lanier. “I wanted to do this for Gavin.”

As for Gavin, there is already a spot for the medal.

“I am going to put it in a shadow box and put it on the shelf in my bedroom,” Gavin said.