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A collector with heart

Seventeen-year-old Ilan Werblow of Ashland collects military medals and loves to study the history around them.

His father, Steve Werblow, goes in antique shops during his business travels looking for new treasures for his son, which is what he recently did in Iowa City.

At an Army-Navy store, the owner, Misty, gave Steve a box of old medals on the condition that he find the family of a Purple Heart awarded to Kenneth M. Touhey, which was engraved on the back. Steve agreed, saying he was pretty sure his son could find them.

He did.

No slouch on the internet, Ilan dug up military records, an obituary and the name of a daughter, Kim Mattingly. He found nothing on her until he put her name in Facebook and messaged her, asking if he should mail it to her in Keokuk, Iowa.

“Oh, my, yes! I would love for you to sent it to me!” a shocked Mattingly messaged back. “You have no idea how happy I am ... I will be forever thankful. You have truly made my day! About to cry some happy tears!”

The medal arrived a few days later and she messaged, “You’ll never know how much this means to me! Thank you ever so much!”

Mattingly explained in a phone interview that her father got the medal (along with a Bronze Star, which she already has) when he was wounded by friendly fire in Vietnam. He recuperated for some time in Vietnam from PTSD, and a bullet wound in the back.

“He would tell me stories when I was a little girl,” Mattingly said, “of how he worked in the mail room in Vietnam during recovery and would process many packages from family, some with crayon drawings all over them, done by the children of a soldier, then sometimes he would have to answer, informing them a loved one was MIA.”

She said her dad dropped out of college and was quickly drafted, serving in 1967-68. The soldier returned home, married, had children, owned a cab company and worked in food processing. He died in 2005 at age 61 and was buried with full military honors, according to his obituary. His medals, left with a second wife, did not get passed to his family — and Misty said the dealer picked them up at an estate sale.

Not too many teen boys have a passion for collecting medals and military memorabilia, but Ilan says, “I’ve always loved history, and while everyone else was reading Harry Potter, I was reading history, and that drew me into the medals. I studied in Scotland for a year, and there’s so much history there.”

Spreading his medals out on the dining room table, Ilan noted colorful medals from Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, service in Antarctica, a Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal, World War I Victory Medals from France, Britain, Belgium, Italy, France, even one awarded for that war by the state of Oregon.

Mattingly wanted to reward Ilan or at least pay shipping, but he declined, with his dad noting, “That’s right in line with his character. Ilan is such a nice person. I like to watch him shop. He understands what he’s looking for. He knows his history.”

Mattingly sent pictures of the medal to her adult children. A daughter, Brooklyn, 18, a college student in New York, messaged back, “Awe, mom, that is so awesome! Things like that don’t happen by accident. How crazy is it that after all this time, it just so happened to get placed in the hands of someone who cared just a little more than the average person and went through the work to get it back to you? ... That is really cool!”

In a letter to Mattingly that accompanied the medal, Ilan wrote, “I am a firm believer that the best home for a medal is with the family.” The medals will be passed to her children (his grandchildren), but meanwhile, she said, her husband is building her a glass case to display them.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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1006988089 purple heart.jpeg