Star Tribune

By Reid Forgrave

ST. PETER, MINN. - Earl "Sonny" Meyer stood at the center of the cavernous chapel Friday afternoon, surprised that his little medal was such a big deal: hundreds of spectators, a U.S. senator, the senior enlisted adviser for the Minnesota National Guard and all of Meyer's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Of course, it was a big deal. Seventy-three years after mortar shrapnel struck Meyer in the left thigh during combat in the Korean War, a representative of the U.S. military finally pinned the Purple Heart — the oldest and one of the most hallowed of American military honors — to his chest.

Meyer's eyes were damp with tears. The retired 96-year-old St. Peter farmer didn't really want all this attention. In his view, the Purple Heart was really about his comrades who didn't make it home. He said he thinks of them every day.

"Oh my," Meyer said a few minutes earlier, leaning on a cane his daughter had crafted from Lake Michigan driftwood. "I'd rather be home in my recliner. It's all a bit much."

It had been a long road from Meyer's wartime service to the front of Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College on Friday.

His time as a rifleman and machine-gunner in Korea was traumatizing: sleepless nights in mountain foxholes, Army buddies dying beside him, never knowing whether he would be next.

In June 1951, his unit was trapped by enemy forces when the shrapnel struck him. A medic bandaged him in the field, telling the young corporal he'd put his name in for a Purple Heart.

Most of his comrades didn't survive the battle. Meyer never saw the medic again.

Living a farmer's life, he didn't talk about the war much with family. His three daughters didn't even know he'd been wounded, with the shrapnel still lodged in his thigh, until Meyer's granddaughter interviewed him for a high school project.

That's when his daughters decided they'd try to get their dad his Purple Heart.

For years, the military rejected the request, citing lack of evidence. The family gained advocates, with the office of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar persistently pressing the military and with Alan Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney who first read about Meyer in a 2020 article in the Star Tribune, advocating for his medal.

Anderson sued the U.S. Department of Defense on Meyer's behalf — but only after he convinced Meyer this fight could help other veterans who were having issues with the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.

At the chapel, a Minnesota National Guard officer read a letter sent by the Army's highest-ranking noncommissioned officer. Scrawled in black Sharpie ink was a note from Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Weimer: "Thank you for not giving up on us! Long overdue!"

Then Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Rost, the senior enlisted adviser in the Minnesota National Guard, opened a black case. Inside was Meyer's Purple Heart.

Before Rost pinned it to Meyer's chest, he explained why the moment was so personally important. Rost was born in Seoul and adopted by a Minnesota family. He has pinned medals before, but never a Purple Heart, and never a medal with such a direct connection to his own heritage.

"I am certain that my life and my service would not be possible without the sacrifice and service of men and women like yourself," Rost said. "Thank you."

He turned to the crowd: "Standing here today, over 73 years later, we have the opportunity and honor to recognize Corporal Earl 'Sonny' Meyer's sacrifice in the summer of 1951, thousands of miles away, a land that's now a prosperous country, a democratic country, a free country, because of the sacrifices of men like Corporal Meyer."

He affixed the medal to Meyer's left breast pocket. It fit beautifully. And all the people who came out for the humble veteran burst into applause.