By LISA HOFFMAN
The grimy blue case rested among other dusty knickknacks in a Southern California secondhand shop. At first glance, Gene Dobos thought it must contain a watch.
A thrift-shop browser and watch collector by hobby, Dobos looked closer and saw the words "PURPLE HEART" embossed in gold on the case’s leatherette cover. Inside, on the stained yellow velvet lining, lay a worn, heart-shaped medal adorned with a purple ribbon. Etched on its reverse was the name "Frank N. Smith" and "For Military Merit."
At home in San Bernardino that night, Dobos couldn’t get Smith or the medal _ which is awarded only to those wounded or killed in war _ out of his mind. The next morning, he returned and bought it for $40.
"It was a very dingy and rundown thrift shop and (I) felt bad the medal was there," said Dobos, 37, and a salesman by trade.
And so began an effort conducted almost entirely on the Internet that grew to include a small army of strangers spanning four states _ California, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas _ all determined to return the decoration to its rightful owner and honor the unknown soldier for his sacrifice.
When the search started in December 2004, no one knew who Smith was, if he was dead or alive, whether he purposely discarded the medal or lost it, say, in a move, or even in which of America’s conflicts he had suffered his wound.
But by the time the mission ended, this disparate network of volunteers had found some of Smith’s family as well as his fate, though the path the medal took to that seedy store shelf remains a mystery.
Along the way, the search became such an emotional grail to some that it spawned an original song, a CD of which is now being sold to raise scholarship funds for youths who volunteer to visit bedridden veterans. Plans are under way for a simple ceremony in the spring to bring the medal home.
"We are all grateful that we were able to contribute in returning the medal to its proper owner," Dobos said in an e-mail.
The thrift shop had no clue where the medal came from, so Dobos began his search on the Internet, asking around in chat rooms for advice on how to track down a soldier. Dobos and his online hunters eventually determined that the person in question was Army Pfc. Frank Norman Smith, who died in Vietnam nearly 40 years ago.
Smith, 20, was a light-vehicle driver in a convoy that was ambushed Dec. 17, 1968, in the Tay Ninh province of South Vietnam, according to casualty records.
The enemy was gearing up for an offensive and U.S. forces were moving in to defend the city of Tay Ninh. Just two weeks shy of coming home to Seneca County, Ohio, for good after a year in combat, Smith was killed by small-arms fire. He was one of 147 U.S. service members to die in Vietnam that day.
Armed with that information, Dobos turned next to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a nonprofit organization of medal recipients that calls itself the "keepers of the medal."
In the hope that the group could find Smith’s grave and return the medal to his family, Dobos mailed the decoration to Ray Funderburk, public-relations chief for the group and a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts himself. Funderburk was deeply moved when he received it.
"It looks as if the medal has been handled many times and replaced back on the metal clip holding it in place," said Funderburk, of Southaven, Miss. "I envisioned his mom and dad taking the medal out and holding it in their hands, thinking of their son."
He beat the online bushes for information on Smith and found a friendly Ohio genealogist who agreed to help. "I will not see his medal degraded further," Funderburk wrote in an e-mail to genealogist Kristina Krumm of Columbus, Ohio.
Krumm recruited fellow researchers and, in time, pinpointed Smith’s grave in a cemetery not far from his childhood home.
On a parallel track, Smith’s parents were found to have died, but his siblings were located via the e-mail addresses they had used to send memorial messages about their brother to an online registry of fallen Vietnam War troops. They had no idea their brother’s medal had gone missing and were overwhelmed by the kindness of the corps of strangers determined to return it.
"We believe this is nothing short of a miracle from God," Fran Stock, one of Frank’s older sisters, wrote in an e-mail.
"It’s just amazing," agreed Jonna Smith, Frank’s other sister, in a telephone interview.
To the sisters, Frank was their best friend while growing up in the country in northern Ohio, not far from Toledo. A dark-haired, good-looking kid who stood 6-feet-4 and weighed 245 pounds, their brother was a practical joker who loved life, Jonna Smith said.
Frank went by "Pete" to differentiate him from his father, also named Frank. Along with his name, the son shared the patriotism of his father, who served in the Navy, the Army, and then the Ohio National Guard.
The dad’s service inspired Frank to enlist in the Army, even as the Vietnam War raged at its worst. He married a week before high-school graduation and left a week later for boot camp.
His wife, Karen, had their daughter, Jackie, while he was at war. She brought the 4-week-old to Hawaii where Frank had some R&R leave from combat. "He got to see (his child) that once," Jonna Smith said.
After Frank’s death, his widow and daughter moved west and probably took his Purple Heart with them, Jonna said. The family in Ohio lost touch with the two about 20 years ago. "We haven’t heard anything," she said.
The discovery of her brother’s medal has brought Jonna a mix of emotions _ awe that strangers would go to such trouble for her family, along with the grief she still carries from her brother’s loss. "I’ve always had a hard time accepting my brother’s death," she said.
For Funderburk, of the Purple Heart group, finally finding Smith’s resting place so touched him that he penned a poem he titled "Purple Heart Soldier." Paul Dvorak, Funderburk’s son-in-law, composed music to go with the lyrics, then tapped his network of fellow Texas A&M University alums to find musician volunteers to record it in San Antonio.
Part of the proceeds of the sale of the $9.95 compact disc, which can be found at www.txrrecords.com, will go toward a scholarship program that links young people with bedridden veterans in Veterans Affairs facilities.
Now, Funderburk is having the medal encased in glass and making plans to bring it to Ohio this spring, where it will be permanently affixed to Smith’s grave in Bethel Cemetery in Seneca County. A contingent of Purple Heart recipients from Ohio hopes to attend.
"That will be a good time to say a final ‘Thank you, Frank N. Smith, for giving up your precious life for us,’ " Funderburk said. "We salute you and may you rest in peace."
(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)