Lost and FoundNov 01, 2021 ● By Karen Chaney
Growing up in Sweet Home, Oregon, south of Portland, Dean Richter enjoyed floating on a river in an inner tube, hunting and attending church with his twin brother, Dale.
“It was great being a twin because I always had someone to wrestle with,” Dean, a former Frisco resident, recently recalled.
In 1965, the brothers each received their draft notices.
Three years later, Dale, who served in the Army Intelligence Corps in Germany and Vietnam, died in combat and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart. The medals are presented to military service members who are wounded or killed while serving.
Dean eventually became caretaker of the treasured medal. However, in 2019, while residing in Leonard, Texas, northeast of Frisco, the Purple Heart was stolen from his home, leaving him with what he said felt like a hole in his own heart.
He had no hope of ever seeing the medal again until earlier this year when he received an unexpected phone call alerting him that the Purple Heart had been recovered and was finally headed home.
“I was proud of my country and wanted to serve,” Dean recalled of his military service. “I just did whatever they told me to do.” Prior to being drafted, he had taken classes to learn how to parachute jump and went on to serve in the Army Airborne Division. Most of his time in Vietnam was spent as an assistant machine gunner on a helicopter landing zone.
Dale, who had graduated high school a year before Dean, had already completed a year of college and was eligible for draft exemption when he received his notice. “He could have stayed in college, but he chose to serve,” Dean explained. Given his education, Dale served in the Army Intelligence Corps, spending 18 months in Germany before volunteering to go to Vietnam.
A Tragic Reunion
In March 1968, the twins returned to Sweet Home for Dean’s wedding. Dale served as the best man. It was the last time Dean would see his brother alive.
The day after the wedding, Dean and his bride drove to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to begin their life together. Dale, meanwhile, left for duty in Vietnam. “I was worried about him going over,” Dean recalled, “because I believed the war wasn’t going in our favor, and I knew no matter where you were over there, your life was in danger.”
Five months later, on Aug. 26, 1968, Dale was killed. According to Dean, a Russian-made rocket hit the intelligence headquarters south of Saigon, Vietnam, where Dale was stationed.
Upon learning of his brother’s death, Dean said, “My mind exploded.”
The Richter brothers were once again headed home. This time, however, Dean would serve as Dale’s body escort.
“They gave me a little training – white gloves, how to hold the flag and stuff like that,” he said. “I met his body in San Francisco. I flew with his body to Eugene, Oregon. Every time his body was moved, I would render the hand salute behind the casket in full dress uniform and white gloves.”
Dale was later awarded a Purple Heart. According to National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, the medal dates back to 1782. It was instituted by General George Washington and awarded to honor merit. Today, it is awarded to United States service members who have been wounded, killed or have died after being wounded by enemy action.
Following Dale’s burial, the military flew Dean back to Fort Bragg where he served for a few more months. “After my brother died, I just wanted to get out” of the service, he said, and did so in November 1968.
After leaving the military, Dean said he had trouble finding a job. He started a contract business doing plumbing work on new swimming pools. In 1978, he moved his family to Frisco.
'A Hole in My Heart'
Two years ago, a person who was living with Dean in Leonard stole Dale’s Purple Heart as well as other items from his home. Realizing the medal was gone, Dean became angry and grief stricken. “It was just sentimental to me. It meant my whole heart, and they tore it out, stole it. My heart had a hole in it. I was a broken person.”
Earlier this year, Dean’s son, Frisco resident Shannon Dale Richter (he bears his late uncle’s name), received a phone call from the nonprofit organization Purple Hearts Reunited (PHR) based in St. Albans, Vermont. Its mission is to “return lost, stolen and misplaced military medals of valor to veterans or their families, in order to honor their sacrifice to the nation.”
Since its inception in 2012, PHR has returned hundreds of lost or stolen medals. When family members can’t be located, the medals are sent to a “home of honor,” such as a military museum.
Erin Faith Allen, director of operations for PHR, told Shannon Dale Richter that the organization had received his uncle’s Purple Heart, which had arrived in an envelope without a note or a return address. “Usually there is a note and other relevant information, but sometimes the items are sent to us anonymously,” she said.
PHR wanted to arrange to reunite Dale Richter’s medal with its rightful owner. Because his name and military information are inscribed on it, the organization was able to verify his service. “We traced his family to identify next of kin. Next, we made several phone calls,” Allen said, and eventually reached Shannon Dale Richter. PHR also requested to interview Dean, who now resides in Greenville, Texas.
In June, Richter family members were invited to Shannon Dale Richter’s Frisco home to take part in what PHR calls a “Return Ceremony.”
“In this family, because both brothers served in Vietnam, this was an opportunity to honor two of our nation’s bravest in one story, which is a profound and incredibly special honor for us to be a part of,” Allen said.
Shenna Lawless, commander of Frisco VFW Post 8273, said she was pleased that the ceremony to return the Purple Heart occurred in Frisco. “As a mother of twins, I can personally attest to the intense bond that twins share, and I can only imagine the overwhelming sense of loss Dean experienced when the medal was originally stolen.”
Through the ceremony, Shannon Dale Richter said he learned more about his father’s childhood, military experience and his uncle than he had previously known. “I may have been named after (Dale), but my dad has never talked about the war or his brother,” he said.
Following his time in Vietnam, Dean said he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although his military experience left him with feelings of loss, he had a renewed sense of hope the day he was reunited with his brother’s medal. “I thanked them for returning the Purple Heart to me because there was a hole in my heart that can now be filled. It means that much to me.”
Karen Chaney has been a freelance writer and photographer for 10 years. She has been married 26 years and has two sons.
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