By Rich Kellman
LOCKPORT, NY-- June 28TH of this year was a day that changed the life of Richard Zuehlke. Richard had been taking in donations at the Goodwill store on Transit Road in Lockport for two years. On that day in June, he took in a box of household items with a mystery inside. "When I first saw it, I was like, 'Oh, my goodness,'" he says.
Deep inside the box was a portrait of a soldier, and the medal known as the Purple Heart. "I was like, somebody really earned this," he said. "I'm going to try to give it back to the family." On the back of the medal was the name James E. Roland. Richard showed it to a Goodwill manager, and marketing director Linda Maraszek had an idea. "People were all excited and really energized over it," she says, "and we thought, what's the best way to get the word out?" She posted the name and the picture on the Goodwill website. "It was amazing," she says. "The response. so many people trying to connect one another, y'know, 'Maybe you know this family, how about here in Lockport. somebody donated in the Lockport area, this should be easy, there's a family in the lockport area.' But as we know, it wasn't so easy."
In fact, it took nearly a month of research to find a possible next of kin. Linda Hastreiter of the Iron Island Museum in Buffalo went to the Web and found Pvt. Roland's burial site. "It's in Westover, Pennsylvania," she says. She dug some more and found there were a half dozen Rolands still living in Westover. She called every one of them, but only one Roland called back. "Mary Roland called me back two days after the message. When she did, she said, 'I just thought this was a joke,' and I said, 'Oh no, it's no joke. I told her what we had, and she was so thrilled, she started to get emotional, I started to get emotional. It was really quite amazing."
"I knew exactly who it was," Mary tells us. "I'd seen that picture so many times before. So I called Linda and I told her,'That's him, I know that's him.'"
A letter from the War Department accompanied the Purple Heart. It was dated May 18, 1944. That was the month the tide turned for the Allies in the four-month battle of Anzio, Italy, in World War II. Government records show that Pvt. James E. Roland was killed there that month in battle. He was unmarried and he'd just turned 30. Linda says, "He went off to war for our country. Like many others, he was unable to come back and finish his life."
Linda Hastreiter also heads the regional Veterans Recovery Program of a group known as the Patriot Guard Riders. "They stand flag lines at military burials at the request of the families," she tells us, "They find unclaimed cremated remains of veterans and give them proper military burials."
James Roland's hometown, Westover, Pennsylvania, is a small town about three-and-a-half hours south of Buffalo. He was born here, grew up, and later went to Niagara Falls to get a job. He worked for a Firestone auto repair shop in the Falls until 1943 when he went to war.
Mayor Mary Roland Struble's house is one of the first that you see when you drive into town. Friends and relatives have been dropping by, excited by all the fuss over the Purple Heart being found in Western New York. Linda Hastreiter and the Patriot Guard Riders will be coming to Westover the next day to present the medal to Mary and the Roland family. "It just seems like everybody is interested in this," Mary says. It's a town whose people worked hard. They did logging and worked at a tannery making leather for shoes. But some young people like James left town to find work elsewhere, and that's what brought him north to Niagara County.
Early morning in Orchard Park, Saturday August 17th, and dozens of Patriot Guard Riders, most of them on motorcycles, prepare for their mission to Westover. Ride Captain Don Becker stows the Purple Heart in a utility box behind the seat of his motorcycle. "It's a very special cargo," he says. Bill Brainard is the Sr. Ride Captain. "We're not just showing up someplace for a veteran. We're honoring a veteran." They are military veterans and first responders. Bill says, "I'm so proud of the men and women of Region One. They get that. It's not something they're trained to do. It's something that's in their heart."
It's around 3 and a half hours from Buffalo to Westover. Kirby Johnson is one of the riders, amazed at what he's seen. "I watched this truck driver, he stopped at a light, he scrambled down the stairs, stood there and saluted, stood there and held that salute until we all went by, and I was like, oh, wow, what a great country this is." past Mary's house, they make a left, toward the Westover Baptist Church. They dismount and walk across a short bridge toward the church, flags unfurled, under a clear blue sky. They cross the cemetery to Pvt. Roland's gravesite.
"James was killed in action on May 23rd, 1944 in the battle of Anzio in Italy," Linda tells the crow of around a hundred neighbors and family members. The Purple Heart ended up in Lockport, New York in a Goodwill, and it was found by Richard here,"-she touches his shoulder-"who knew enough that it was an important piece of history, and turned it over to the Goodwill, who posted it on Facebook, and I'm very proud to be here and be a part of this ceremony."
Two ceremonial officers from Indiantown Gap Army base perform the flag folding ceremony. It is disciplined, it is precise. The flag is then presented to Mary, with the words, "Please accept this flag as a symbol of appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service." They then offer a slow salute to Mary.
"Charles is the oldest member of the Roland family," says Linda, "and he will be accepting the purple heart. Richard and Don Becker together will present it to (him.)"
"On behalf of the patriot guard all across America," he says, "it is my honor to return this Purplle Heart to the living relatives of James Roland, a true American hero."
Charles, Mary's brother, thanks Don and Richard "It's our honor to be here," Don says.
"Charles is also a Vietnam veteran," says Linda."
"Welcome home, brother," several veterans say, "welcome home."
After the ceremony, Mary tells us, "Today is James's day."
Throughout the ceremony, Richard, who spotted the Purple Heart at the Goodwill where he worked, was at the center of the proceedings. We ask him, "How did you feel being part of this?"
"It feels wonderful," he says. "They went to great lengths to bring it down here. I support all that they (the Patriot Guard Riders) stand for."
"Could you imagine yourself being honored in this way?" we ask.
"Not in this lifetime," he says with a grin."
He's an otherwise ordinary guy, but he paid attention. He noticed something, and said something. Others followed through. many pitched in to help. and a community came together to honor their own. Says Mary, "We're going to put it in the borough building in town where everybody can see it."
What remains, though, is the mystery. "How it ended up, where it ended up, says Linda."
A family member tells us that she did have it, but it somehow went astray when she moved from the Buffalo area to Florida this summer. In any case The Purple Heart of James Edwin Roland is with family members in his hometown. "This belongs here, in the place where he lived, Mary says.
Linda adds, "People will now remember Private Roland and what he did for our country."
"Do not forget me," we say.
Linda nods in agreement. "Do not forget me," she says.