Bob Van Bergen’s home in Shakopee is ready for the holidays. His three children and eight grandchildren will come for Christmas Eve dinner. They’ll have a Christmas ham and open the dozens of presents stacked under the picture window. It’s an evening Van Bergen looks forward to every year.
But Van Bergen’s ultimate Christmas gift isn’t in any of those perfectly wrapped boxes. Instead, it’s sitting on a living room ottoman, a tattered piece of purple ribbon attached to a purple-and-gold medal, 1 3/8 inches wide. For half a century, Van Bergen assumed it had been lost forever. In the course of American history, some 2 million Purple Hearts have been awarded. To Van Bergen, this is the one that matters.
“It doesn’t look as rough as you’d expect,” the 71-year-old Vietnam veteran said, “especially having been found in a dump.”
The story of Van Bergen’s cherished family gift begins more than a century ago, when his grandfather, Albert A. Van Bergen, shipped out on Aug. 3, 1918, to fight the Germans on the Western Front. The 25-year-old soldier was thrust into the war’s deadliest campaign, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which lasted from September right up until the final day of World War I in November. It was in the Forest of Argonne in northeastern France where a German sniper’s bullet hit Van Bergen in the leg, leading to its amputation and resulting in his Purple Heart.
When Bob Van Bergen was growing up in south Minneapolis in the 1950s and 1960s, he didn’t know much about his grandfather. He only met him a couple times before his death. He knew that his grandfather had met his grandmother while selling prosthetic limbs door-to-door; she had lost a leg in a train accident as a child and also was an amputee.
But Van Bergen did know just how important military service was to his family. Relatives had served in every American conflict going back to the Revolutionary War. Since World War I, 20 of his family members have served some 120 combined years of military service. Bob Van Bergen and four of his brothers enlisted, though he was the only one sent to Vietnam.
After Van Bergen returned from his tour there in 1971 with his own array of medals — Army commendation medals, a Vietnam service medal, a Cross of Gallantry medal — his father passed away. His step-mother passed on to Van Bergen his father’s medals from World War II as well as his grandfather’s Purple Heart. He put them in the glove box of his car.
And then someone broke into this car and stole all those medals. He believes another family member took them, angry they had been given to Van Bergen.
“They just disappeared,” he said.
As the decades wore on, Van Bergen gave up on ever seeing them again. That sadness stuck with him: “I just assumed I would never get it back,” he said.
Meanwhile, at a landfill in Waseca, Wayne Ingebritson — a Minnesota Department of Transportation maintenance worker from Janesville and himself a Vietnam veteran — was hauling Adopt a Highway garbage some 20 years ago when he spied a conspicuous piece of trash. He saw a purple box with a purple ribbon inside. A medal was inscribed with the words: “FOR MILITARY MERIT. ALBERT A. VAN BERGEN.”
“I knew what it was right away,” said Ingebritson, now 73 and retired. “But I didn’t know what to do with it.”
He went to a few different VA locations. Some government folks said they’d take the medal and try to solve the mystery, but Ingebritson couldn’t stomach giving that medal to just anyone. He tried to find Purple Heart recipients by that name: No luck. So for years he kept it in his jewelry box. Over the years he made a few attempts — he did some research at a library in Mankato and contacted a group called Purple Hearts Reunited — but nothing panned out.
“I figured some day I’d find it, but honestly, I kind of forgot about it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jen Moeller, a 52-year-old Rosemount dental hygienist who is Albert Van Bergen’s great-granddaughter, was getting into genealogy. She became active on Ancestry.com with a public family tree. She researched her relatives, including the World War I veteran with the wooden leg. And one day earlier this year, she got a phone call from a Vermont-based organization called Purple Hearts Reunited. The group believed it had found something that belonged to her family.
Moeller drove to Faribault and met Ingebritson at a DQ. He handed her the medal. She explained Albert Van Bergen’s story, and told Ingebritson how grateful the family was. Moeller and an aunt determined the rightful heir must be Bob Van Bergen. She drove to Shakopee, giddy.
“I held it out in my hand like a little bird,” she said. Van Bergen explained to her how the medal had been lost, and how holding this medal a half-century after losing it helped heal old wounds.
“If it had been a day earlier or a day later, I’d have missed it,” Ingebritson said. “There must have been a purpose for that to be there.”
“Such a treasured item has a destiny,” Moeller said. “I don’t know if it’s serendipity, fate, God, whatever. But I believe something greater than us brought this back to our family.”
In his home in Shakopee, days before his grandchildren tear into that pile of Christmas presents, Van Bergen held up the medal. He spoke about passing it on to his oldest son when he dies. Moeller, his second cousin, spoke about how family reunions had faded over time, and how, perhaps, her genealogy work plus this medal could spur cousins to reconnect.
The medal signifies sacrifice, they agreed. And family.
“It’s the best gift I’ve ever been given,” Van Bergen said.