Purple Coronary heart returned to the Houston household 76 years after the veteran’s demise

Ben Johnson was rummaging around his father’s house looking for a book in July when he found a rusty metal box buried in a dresser drawer.

Johnson, who lives in Minnesota, forgot about Loretta Lynn’s book he had been desperately looking for a short while before. He opened the box, marked by decades of wear and tear, to find screws, keys, and other odds and ends. And under a removable tray he discovered a Purple Heart presented to soldiers who were wounded or killed in enemy combat.

He began looking for the family of the military man engraved on the medal, Edward J. Ryan.

On Saturday this medal was presented to Kirt Ashman, Cpl. returned. Ryan’s great-nephew.

“Coming back to the family means a lot not only to my family, but also to my grandmother,” said Ashman, 58. “She’s gone, but that was her little brother and she loved him very much.”

Ashman never knew his great-uncle, but his grandmother always talked about how much she loved Edward.

“Whenever she talked about her brother, she would say that,” said Ashman. “I never wanted to ask her more.”

After reading Stephen Ambrose’s book “D-Day” about five years ago, Ashman began researching his great-uncle.

He learned that Ryan served in the 717th Tank Battalion during World War II and was killed in the Netherlands on March 27, 1945 when an artillery shell struck his tank. Ryan had just celebrated his 22nd birthday.

He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart for his services.

Ashman added Ryan’s name to the Lost Hearts database operated by Purple Hearts Reunited, a nonprofit that works to return Medals of Honor to veterans and their families.

Johnson found him there. He alerted Purple Hearts Reunited, which went to work to verify that Ashan’s great-uncle was the same Edward J. Ryan on the medal.

“It’s really cool when (the Lost Hearts database) works,” said Erin Faith Allen, operations manager for the organization. “We can reach the family directly and give them the surprise of a lifetime.”

Johnson’s father Scott said Saturday he bought the metal box at a flea market for a dollar or two about seven years ago. He lives by a lake in Cotton, Minn., And wanted to use it as a tackle box.

But it was forgotten in a drawer. Until Ben Johnson found it.

Scott Johnson lives just 20 miles from Makinen, Minnesota, where Ryan grew up.

The modern day Purple Heart was first issued in 1932, but its forerunner – the badge of military merit – was founded by General George Washington in 1782, according to the U.S. Army website.

Since then, more than 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded, according to estimates by the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor.

Ashman struggled to express how much it meant to finally have the medal back.

“For me, I feel like I’ve achieved something for (my grandmother) and I’m getting it back into the family,” he said. “I’m sure my grandmother is very happy.”

alex.stuckey@chron.com

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