The veteran was browsing at an Arizona flea market when he saw the medal discarded among pieces of costume jewelry. The merchant was asking for $40, but Carlson knew that the medal was priceless.
The Purple Heart is given to servicemen who are wounded or killed in combat. Receiving a Purple Heart is a huge honor, and Carlson would know - his uncle had earned three in World War II.
He bought the medal, and began his search for the soldier, Clarence M. Merriott, whose name was engraved on the back. The medal came with a letter dated April 21, 1944, which helped Carlson discover that he had served during World War II.
Carlson contacted a veterans organization, the Army's 300th Combat Engineers, to help track down the soldier or his family and return the Purple Heart. Many of the volunteers were moved by his plight and became emotionally invested in his search. A local history museum also helped out, rifling through census records, newspaper articles and scrapbooks in order to find out more information on the soldier.
Through the selfless help of dozens of volunteers, it was discovered that Merriott had been killed in action only two months after he had sent that letter to his family in 1944. He was on a ship packed with reinforcements for troops who had stormed Normandy Beach two weeks prior. The ship was attacked, and half the men on board were killed, including Merriott.
The veteran was astonished to hear how this soldier had died, as he had experienced a similar attack while serving on the USS Goldsborough in 1972. An enemy attack left two of his friends dead, with Carlson narrowly escaping.
"This young man ... joined the military to serve his country," he told The Republic. "I joined the military to serve my country. We both saw combat. I came home. He didn't."
"I helped him find his way home," he says.
After a nine-month search, Carlson was able to find some of the soldier's distant relatives in Oklahoma and return the Purple Heart. The family decided to donate the medal and letters to the town's museum, where they will be on display to the public.
Today, on Veterans Day, the medal's return and Merriott's memory will be celebrated in a ceremony at a local high school. Eleven Purple Heart recipients are slated to attend, as well as all the people touched by one soldier's good deed to another.
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