EAST ST. LOUIS — Vietnam veteran Willie Riley searched for his lost Purple Heart for more than 20 years.
He earned the medal in 1968 after a tank he was in hit a land mine. The explosion lifted him 50 feet in the air and broke his arm and leg and severely damaged his eye.
But for years, he thought the medal he earned in that moment was gone forever.
This week, his family discovered that after sitting in a safe deposit box, the medal was turned over to the Illinois treasurer’s office about 10 years ago and has been in its vault ever since.
Riley died last December at the age of 71. But on Monday, the lost medal was finally returned to the family he left behind.
His brother-in-law Tommie Turner, of East St. Louis, accepted the Purple Heart from Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs.
Frerichs’ office tracked down the family as part of a program to return unclaimed military medals to their owners or heirs.
Riley’s widow, Lori Riley, who lives on Long Island in New Yotk, said she was overcome with emotion when she heard the medal was found.
“I feel like it was the one thing he regretted missing before he died,” she said. “This is something he always took pride in. He wouldn’t want a lot of fanfare, but it would have made him so happy that it’s been found.”
Riley was born in Tennessee but lived more than 20 years in East St. Louis.
People called him the “gentle giant” because he was always sweet and soft-spoken, but also tall and lanky at 6 foot 1 and about 140 pounds, Lori Riley said.
He was known to wear a cowboy hat and worked as a horse trainer most of his life. His gentle demeanor gave him a special ability with the animals, and many referred to him as a “horse whisperer,” Lori Riley said.
Willie Riley worked as a trainer at Fairmount Park Racetrack in Collinsville before he was recruited in the early 1980s to work at Big E Farm in the Hamptons on Long Island. The farm is owned by the Entenmann family (famous for the baked goods company).
In 1985, he met his future wife in a Dunkin’ Donuts shop where she worked.
“He’d come in and drink coffee for two hours,” Lori Riley said. “So one day I asked him, ‘You drink a lot of coffee, why do you come in here every day?’ And he says: ‘I come to see you.’ He was so sweet like that.”
The couple married at the home of Willie Riley’s sister, Geraldine Turner, in East St. Louis the next year.
Riley was always close with Turner — and gave her his Purple Heart for safekeeping.
She put it in a safe deposit box but lost track of it over the years, and it was turned over as unclaimed property about 10 years ago.
Turner died in 2015, but the medal was still missing.
Frerichs’ office began trying to track down Riley’s family in July as part of its effort to reconnect military medals with their owners, said Lee LoBue, advocacy director for unclaimed property for the office.
“We really made it a high priority,” LoBue said. “It’s a lot of dead ends, but it’s always meaningful when we do find the family.”
Riley’s Purple Heart is the fourth military medal the treasurer’s office has returned to families in the last year, but more than 100 unclaimed medals remain in its vaults.
The office is the custodian of all unclaimed property, including forgotten safe deposit box contents, after private entities are unable to locate recipients for five years.
Frerichs said he started to focus on returning military medals after he noticed them in a case at the treasurer’s office.
“They looked nice, but they don’t belong to us,” Frerichs said. “They belong to the people who earned them.”
The medal was sent Monday to Lori Riley, who will officially be presented with it at Willie Riley’s grave at Calverton National Cemetery in New York on Veterans Day.
Some of Riley’s six children will also be there, including his daughter Melodee, who is a senior airman in the National Guard, and his son Darien, a corporal in the Marine Corps Reserves.
“You know, it’s bittersweet,” Lori Riley said of receiving the medal, her voice cracking. “I just wish he were here to get it.”
The Illinois treasurer’s office asks people who believe they may have relatives with unclaimed property such as Willie Riley’s medal to check iCash at illinoistreasurer.gov/iCASH to search. All returns of unclaimed property are free of charge.
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