(LANSING, Mich.) -- A pawn shop is an unusual place to find a Purple Heart.
The badge symbolizes courage and patriotism and is awarded to U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in battle.
But in a small Michigan town, hard economic times forced one anonymous soldier to part with what may have been the biggest symbol of his military achievement.
A-Z Outlet owner Bryan VandenBosch says a Purple Heart was sold to him in November by a West Michigan man serving in Afghanistan. The service member, who pawned off the precious medal, declined an interview request with the Holland Sentinel, which first reported the story.
"He was falling on hard times," VandenBosch told the Sentinel, adding that the soldier didn't want his name to be revealed. "He said the same thing everybody else who comes in here says. He was short on funds."
Unlike some other medals, a Purple Heart is not engraved, which can make it difficult to track down the recipient.
Veterans have been particularly hard hit by the economy, with the unemployment rate for this group hovering at 7.4 percent in November. The problem is particularly profound in Michigan, where the veteran unemployment rate is nearly 30 percent, higher than both the national average and the state's unemployment rate.
The reports have sparked a flood of sympathy from across the country. Both individuals and military organizations have reached out to VandenBosch offering to buy the medal back for the anonymous soldier.
But the pawnshop owner, who has been flooded with calls from around the country, said he never intended to sell the Purple Heart and is keeping it for the soldier, should he want it back.
It's not unusual for Purple Heart medals to appear in flea markets and for sale online. But many of those belong to deceased service members, and what makes this case unusual is that the medal was sold by the recipient himself.
Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, it's against the law to sell a military decoration or medal. VandenBosch said he never intended to sell the medal to begin with and has taken it down from the lit glass case in which he showcased the Purple Heart earlier this week, adding that he should never have put it there in the first place.
Some are questioning the authenticity of the medal, which is awarded in a special presentation case with a lapel pin. It is relatively easy for servicemembers to buy a Purple Heart, says John Bircher, national spokesman for The Military Order of the Purple Heart. They are sold for about $30 at a military base, and even though they are only meant for recipients looking for a replacement, often the sellers don't ask for proof of eligibility.
A Total of 1.7 million Purple Heart medals have been given out since the award was created in 1932. As of June, more than 12,500 servicemembers serving in Afghanistan had received the medal.
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