It was immediately clear that something was amiss when Rick Vangen opened the door to the family cabin the day after Christmas.
Gone were five of his father’s military medals and his burial flag, all displayed in custom-made frames. They had occupied a special place at the cabin on Swan Lake in Pengilly, Minn. — they were the first thing you saw going in and the last thing you saw going out.
Fishing equipment and tools worth several thousand dollars also were stolen. But it was the loss of the medals that hurt most.
“The only thing that really matters to me and my family was to get those medals back,” Rick Vangen said. “It hit me pretty hard.”
As much as the medals, the thief had stolen a family legacy.
After hearing about the theft, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office began working the case — not to solve the crime, but to address the family’s pain. Earlier this week, replacement medals were delivered in the mail.
“I was amazed. Typically things don’t work so fast with our government,” Rick Vangen said.
“We were all so proud of his accomplishments,” said a daughter, Sheryl Karnes. “Dad had a very, very deep commitment to his country, and he’s passed that on to all members of the family. Losing those medals, we were just sick.”
Said Rick Vangen, “We were hoping someone would start feeling guilty or somebody who had seen them would surface. But obviously they haven’t.”
Staffers in Klobuchar’s office immediately began working to replace the medals, tracing Col. Vangen’s records at the National Personnel Records Center where his service was confirmed. What often can prove an arduous task was accomplished in about a month. It took about two weeks to replace the medals after that.
Klobuchar said the gesture has meaning beyond helping a constituent. She hopes to meet with the family soon when she visits Itasca County.
“So often our soldiers are very quiet and humble about their service, but those medals live on beyond their lives,” she said. “At a time when we have a lot of trust broken down of our whole system and our government, I think the fact that we’re still able to help out with something that may seem small to some people but not small to this family is meaningful.”
Karnes said she broke down crying when she received the replacement medals in the mail a few days ago. There were even replacements of medals that the family didn’t know he had earned and others that they believe their father had given away.
“His legacy goes on with us when we look at these medals,” she said.
Rick Vangen said the burglary remains an open case and that the family has hopes the crime still may be solved. Meantime, what the family will do with the new medals is a topic of discussion among Rick and his siblings. They won’t be taking many chances.
“I’m hoping to get them reframed and put them back where they belong,” Rick Vangen said. “But once we close the cabin down for the season, I’ll be keeping them at my house.”