No thief can know true cost of his crime.
You might remember Philip Johnson as the guy The Register-Guard featured in a centerpiece photo on its City/Region section front March 19.
Thirty-seven years after earning a Bronze Star Medal for valor in Vietnam, he finally received that award, from Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., at the Wayne Morse U.S. Courthouse.
As a first lieutenant artillery officer, he was wounded in a 1971 attack near the Cambodia border. The rocket, rifle and mortar assault was so severe that 42 of the 80 men in his unit were airlifted to hospitals. He also got a Purple Heart and a handful of other medals, including a citation for heroism from the South Vietnam government.
But the story of Philip Johnson and his medals didn't end with that ceremony.
Johnson, 61 and a former ROTC student at Oregon State before heading for Vietnam, tucked the medals into a bedroom dresser drawer in the Santa Clara house he shares with his wife, Gloria. "We were going to get a shadow box or something to put them in," he says.
But on July 1 Johnson got a tearful call from Gloria. Their house had been broken into. Johnson, a human resources manager for a company that makes rock-crushing equipment, rushed home. The thief or thieves had broken through a window in which an air-conditioning unit had been placed.
Among the missing items? Jewelry. Watches. Broaches. Family photos. Items passed down from Philip and Gloria's parents that they hoped to pass on to their three grown daughters.
And the medals. Every one of them. Gone. "You really feel violated," Johnsonsays.
After reporting the break-in to the Lane County Sheriff's Office, Johnson found himself too wound up to sleep that night.
It wasn't anger. It was sadness.
"It was this sorrow that someone felt they had do this, and that so much of the stuff was irreplaceable."
He was reading a book. It was about 11 p.m. That's when the doorbell rang.
Johnson walked the length of the house and carefully opened the door, wondering who would be coming to their house this late.
Nobody was there. But on the porch, he saw them: the medals and pictures of his daughters.
And a hand-written note: "You don't deserve this. God have mercy on my soul. I'm so sorry."
For Johnson, the questions came fast: Who? Why? The emotions came mixed.
"It softened the blow a little bit, sure," he says, "but also made everything feel more intense. They didn't return everything. If they truly felt that way, why not return everything? Someone had a conscience, but not enough to give us back all the stuff that was stolen."
Another thought, disconcerting but real: "That this was someone who understood what a Bronze Star means."
But who then? A war veteran? "I don't want to judge motives, but somehow it all made me think this is someone who knew us and had compassion for us."
That, of course, only further spun his swirl of emotions. He was happy, yes, that the medals and photos had been returned.
"But I feel worse about not being able to pass that other stuff down to my children," he says. "I feel awful for Gloria, who had jewelry in there that's irreplaceable."
Nothing, of course, can steal the honor that a soldier such as Johnson deserves, medals or not. And nothing can rob a family of legacies, heirlooms or not.
But while you might appreciate the better-late-than-never act of the thief's "conscience lite," you also might say: How dare someone else decide what's important, and what's not, to somebody else?
How much, or little, someone else values something is irrelevant. It's theirs. And, no matter if stolen, will always be theirs.
Bob Welch is at 338-2354 and email@example.com.