Heart in right place: Decades later, family getting WW II veteran's medal back

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Family members of Wiljo Matalamaki lost track of his Purple Heart medal decades ago. But it's coming back to them this weekend in a ceremony at Fort Snelling.

As the Pioneer Press reports, Wiljo was 22 and single when he was killed on a bombing mission over Germany during World War II.

His mother received the Purple Heart, but since her death in 1966 its whereabouts were a mystery to surviving family members.

Meanwhile, a White Bear Lake woman – whose last name just happens to be Heart – had inherited the medal from her mother, who discovered it inside a box of clothes at a dump on the Iron Range during the 19990's, the Pioneer Press explains.

Last year Tami Heart met the nephew of Wiljo Matalamaki and she plans to present him with his uncle's Purple Heart on Sunday in the chapel at Fort Snelling.

When Tami Heart's mother died 15 years ago, she took possession of a cabin on property the family owned in the small town of Wawina. That's where the Purple Heart was kept and Tami tells the Associated Press she began some research on the man whose name is on the medal.

She located Wiljo's gravestone in the Wawina cemetery and carried the Purple Heart with her to Veteran's Day ceremonies, the AP reports.

Only a couple of years ago did Tami Heart learn that the very cabin she now owns in Wawina was where Wiljo Matalamaki and his siblings grew up. Last summer, some of his relatives came to visit the old homestead, the Pioneer Press says, and Tami met Wiljo's nephew, Randy Heikkila of Grand Rapids. He will receive the Purple Heart in Sunday's ceremony.

In the 15 years she's been caring for the Purple Heart medal, Tami Heart formed a bond with the young Air Force engineer she never met. The AP reports her eyes get teary as she talks about giving up the medal, but "It's time to turn him over," she says.

The hand-off will come just two days after Purple Heart Day, which marks the date in 1782 when George Washington created a badge to be presented to members of the U.S. armed forces who are wounded in combat.

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