Purple Heart search

(First published in the June 20, 2019 issue of City Pages)

A person in California wanted to make sure a Purple Heart in his possession got to its rightful recipient. The medal found its way home to Marathon County.


Thomas Rick and Don Litzer with the Purple Heart that belonged to Rick’s uncle, George Rick, who was killed in Italy in World War II.

In May, an elderly veteran walked in to a Veteran Services Resource in Bakersfield, Calif. He had with him a Purple Heart that didn’t belong to him, and he wanted to see that it got to its rightful owner. Using the number that each Purple Heart medal has on it, Veteran’s Office officials were able to track it down to George J. Rick, who had lived in Marathon County.

That was all the information the Department of Veterans Affairs office in Madison had to go on when they got the Purple Heart and a letter from the Bakersfield office last month. Finding a surviving family member to give the military decoration to was another matter.

Last Thursday, June 13, the nephew of George Rick and a veteran himself, Thomas Rick, accepted the Purple Heart from Department of Veteran Services representatives at the Marathon County Historical Society’s headquarters. Nearly everyone in the family served in the military, Thomas Rick told City Pages, and he himself served in four tours in the Vietnam War with the U.S. Marine Corps.

His father had told him about George Rick, that he’d earned a Purple Heart in World War II, and that he’d died in the war in Italy. The Purple Heart is a U.S. Military decoration awarded in the name of the president to those wounded or killed in battle since April 1917. The Purple Heart is the oldest U.S. Military decoration still actively given out.

How did the Department of Veterans Affairs connect this medal brought into a California veterans service office by an elderly veteran who could no longer remember how it came into his possession to Thomas Rick’s hand Thursday? A newscast helped connect the dots.

The Madison office reached out to the Wausau-based television station WSAW Ch. 7, which ran a story on the search for the family of the medal’s recipient. Thomas Rick didn’t see the broadcast, but his cousin did.

Since receiving the medal, the family has found out a lot about George Rick. They discovered he served in the U.S. Army, that he’d fought on the Italian warfront and died in January 1944 during the Battle of Monte de Casino fighting with the 133rd Infantry regiment of the 34th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He was one of 55,000 allied casualties of war in the battle for Italy, says Don Placidi, Administrator for the Department of Veterans Benefits.

They tracked down a lot of the information through a retired assistant director of the TB Scott Free Library in Merrill and genealogy expert Don Litzer. Litzer is putting together the Rick family tree, and included a lot of the information about George Rick.

Thomas Rick never met his uncle. He only heard about him from his father, but he was surprised when seeing a picture of George Rick. It could have been a picture of his father, the two looked so alike, Thomas says. “It’s an honor, and I’m proud to have it,” Thomas says of the Purple Heart. “I appreciate what everyone has done to bring the Purple Heart back home.”

How the Purple Heart came into the hands of that elderly veteran in California— whether it was given to him for safe keeping or what — remains a mystery. But that veteran told the Bakersfield veteran’s office that he wanted to make sure it got to its rightful recipient. Last week, that’s exactly what happened.