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Unsung Hero: The Story of a Stamford Soldier's Missing Medals

Gene Schaffer was a hero with two bronze medals awarded for military service with valor. Congressman Jim Himes helps reconnect his family with the medals they never knew he deserved.

The bronze star is awarded to United States service members for heroic or meritorious achievement or service. Sgt. Eugene 'Gene' Schaffer, Jr., was awarded two of them.

They are included in the eight medals in total he was awarded for his service in the United States Army during World War II.

His family didn't know about any of them—not his wife, daughter or four sons.

"My husband was a very modest person," said Schaffer's widow, Kathleen. "He rarely talked about his service. We didn't know about any of these medals."

Schaffer and Kathleen met on the grounds of Notre Dame when he was a senior and she a freshman after he'd returned from the war. He didn't often talk about the time he'd spent overseas and she never saw a reason to press the issue.

"He'd remarked to me once that everything he'd had relating to his time in the service had been stolen out of his car," Kathleen said. "He'd been visiting his college roommate in New York. He told me his car had been ransacked and the only thing he really mentioned was, 'Oh, they stole my paratrooper boots!'"

The Schaffers had been married for 58 years before his passing at the age of 88 on September 9, 2011. Despite all that time, Schaffer still managed to surprise his wife. After exiting the service, Schaffer went to school on the GI bill. He began working in journalism, starting at the Houston Chronicle, then the LA Times and eventually moving to the New York Times, where he would stay for 34 years, according to Kathleen. He eventually went back to school to pursue a Masters in Theology, completed at the age of 68.

"He traveled three times to visit the Dalai Lama, to California, to Washington, D.C., because he saw such love in that man and truly embraced the ideals of Buddhism," Kathleen said. "He was more special than I ever realized and I worry maybe I didn't value him enough until after I lost him."

The extent of Schaffer's service came to light only after Kathleen brought discharge papers to the funeral director as they prepared to bury Schaffer at St. John's Cemetery in Darien.

"She told me to bring in his discharge papers and while we were getting everything prepared, she came back and said, 'Oh, he's earned lots of medals!" Kathleen said.

Kathleen and her daughter Mary reached out to Congressman Jim Himes' office, where they eventually reached Jarvis Johnson, a Navy veteran himself who has helped approximately 25 other families track down service memorabilia owned by veterans.

He's made it his specialty to track down the things veterans and their families deserve to have in their lives to commemorate the time served defending their country.

"I've had requests for a lot of stuff outside the box," Johnson said. "One guy asked me to help track down his World War II uniform. It took me a while, but I finally found it in time for Veterans Day in 2012. His wife called me to tell me he hadn't taken it off for two days."

Jarvis tracked down all eight awards, listed as:

  • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with One Bronze Service Star
  • Philippine Liberation Ribbon with One Bronze Service Star
  • American Campaign Medal
  • WWII Victory Medal
  • WWII Honorable Service Lapel Button
  • Good Conduct Medal
  • Expert Badge with Rifle Bar
  • Sharpshooter Badge with Carbine Bar

"It's so satisfying to be able to give them this piece of history," Johnson said. "Being a veteran myself, I know I don't often talk about my career either. It brings me joy to be able to give them their stories, to see a smile on [Kathleen's] face after he husband had these things stolen from him."

A Special Delivery

Congressman Himes and Johnson came to the Schaffer's home Tuesday morning, where Kathleen and her four sons were there to receive the medals rightfully awarded to Schaffer that they had never known about.

His sons—Scott, 59, Jack, 57, Kevin, 50, and Peter, 48—said the day served to make them miss their father, but didn't really change how they saw him.

"It doesn't raise him to a pedestal we didn't already have him on," said Jack.

"Yeah, it doesn't change at all how I see hm," Scott added. "We all miss him. I wish he was here to receive these medals himself."

The sons praised Johnson for his help in getting things moving at a pace they could have never achieved on their own. They said Himes' office made it possible for them to find out so much about their father while they were all, themselves, still alive.

"Thanks to his extraordinary efforts, we got these things belonging to my father that we wouldn't have been able to get otherwise," Scott said. "I spent almost two years trying to find these things out myself."

Tuesday morning, when Kathleen welcomed the congressman to her Stamford home, she was wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. They laughed at the timing of their meeting in honor of Schaffer the morning after the BCS title game between Notre Dame and Alabama, in which Alabama won.

"He probably wouldn't have made it here, he would've been throwing things at the TV all night," Kathleen laughed.

Kathleen took Himes by the hand on a tour of her home, pointing out photos of Schaffer and relaying stories. After Himes presented the family with the medals, he sat with them for almost an hour, listening to their memories of Schaffer.

"Individuals serving abroad often want to come home and put that experience in a box," Himes said. "Johnson and I were talking to a commander who was 90 years-old and he was sharing a story about sinking a German U-Boat and he broke down crying. Time passes, but these experiences carry weight throughout these veterans' lives and sometimes families may never hear anything about their service."

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