For nearly two decades the Veterans Legacy Foundation has been working behind the scenes to make sure deserving veterans or their families receive the awards they deserve.
The volunteer project was formed in 2000 and in 2010 it became an official organization.
In Harnett County, Veteran Services Officer Steve Elskamp heads up the project — and he makes every effort to ensure the vets and their families get the medals and awards they were denied or get the ones that were previously overlooked.
Many are family members who have heard about their relative being eligible or are following up on a family story or other information which leads them to believe a medal is appropriate.
“Folks come to us and say grandpa was in World War II and we’re not sure what medals he received or he was wounded and never received a Purple Heart and can he get that or World War I the same thing,” Mr. Elskamp said. “Or they’ll say Dad was in Korea and we don’t know what he got.”
The inquiries and requests are just limited to family members, according to Mr. Elskamp. He says many times a veteran himself will contact the foundation seeking help to get a deserved award on his own behalf.
“Some people come asking can you look at my records or my discharge and see if I’m missing anything,” he said. “Most people are not sure if they got everything they’re supposed to get.”
The work of the Veterans Legacy Foundation is done mostly behind the scenes. It’s completed through a network of volunteers across the country who spend the needed hours researching old records and other military-related documents to verify a family or veteran’s request.
Supporting documentation is the key that opens the door to the veteran or family getting the medals in hand. Mr. Elskamp says without it there’s no chance.
A lot depends on the era in which the veteran served, many times going all the way back to World War I up through service in Afghanistan, which will determine the length of time to find the needed documentation as well as the available sources.
He says there are archives in many locations across the state and the country where volunteers will sift through records.
Mr. Elskamp said there are archives in St. Louis, Mo., College Park, Md., as well as other even less public places, such as the 8th Air Force and Eisenhower Museums, scattered across the United States.
“Sometimes we can do something quick, within a couple of weeks,” he said. “Sometimes it takes much longer.”
Once the information is confirmed, the paperwork is sent to the respective branch of service — through Congressional channels — for their final approval, then it’s all about acquiring the medals and scheduling the presentation ceremony.
“We put a package together to correct the issue and get the missing award,” he said. “We submit it to the Congressional Office depending on where the individual lives who is making the request. So, not just North Carolina, wherever we go.”
When asked what the different branches of service use as a determination, Mr. Elskamp says it’s usually fairly simple.
“We look for archival documentation to support the request, so it’s pretty tough to say no,” he said. “Some things are vague and we can’t do much, but we can put two and two together.”
The best example he can offer is a hypothetical case of an infantry soldier who’s family feels he has earned the Army’s Combat Infantry Badge.
“For instance a World War II veteran’s family will say he was infantry and shouldn’t he have gotten a CIB?” Mr. Elskamp said. “We say sure, but you have to meet the requirements from the Army. We have to look at did he meet all the requirements. Was he infantry, was he assigned to an infantry unit and was he in combat.”
Mr. Elskamp also uses the example as a way of explaining the details which must be uncovered — and how difficult they can sometimes be to uncover.
“For a World War II veteran we’ll look for things like Morning Reports,” he said. “Now we’re looking for Morning Reports from 1944 which is very difficult.”
Never let it be said difficulty stood in the way.
“It’s difficult, but we’ve done it before,” he said. “Here is Sgt. Smith. His job is infantryman, he’s assigned to an infantry unit and low and behold he was sent to the hospital, he was wounded. We’ve got it, so connecting all the dots is pretty tough sometimes.”
Therein lies another difficulty, actually getting the documents themselves. Many are old, not placed in proper storage and often become nearly unusable simply because of their age and condition.
“A lot of the documentation we are getting now that is in College Park is 70 something years old,” he said. “They haven’t been kept up and they are literally falling apart and once they fall apart, it’s gone. It doesn’t exist anymore.”
Family members and veterans alike can request the services of the Veterans Legacy Foundation — or if someone would like to donate to keep the foundation’s research efforts going strong since the government charges for each document they research — they should contact the foundation through its website veteranslegacy.org or by contacting Mr. Elskamp at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The service if free to all vets and their families.