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Fallen soldier’s lost medals returned to his family

John and Debbie Benedetto of Wakefield searched for 17 years to return medals.

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe (left) and Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

John and Debbie Benedetto of Wakefield searched for 17 years to return medals.

The year was 1996, the car a rusty old Ford station wagon loaned to a Wakefield couple, John and Debbie Benedetto, by a friend of theirs named Chester. He’s deceased now. So is the Ford.

When John and Debbie began cleaning out the car, in the back, among the empty oil cans and busted jumper cables, they found two small boxes containing four military medals: Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Air Medal, Vietnam Service Medal. Three medals bore the inscription “John F. Fitzgibbons.”

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No service affiliation. No rank. No clue as to how or why they had wound up in an old junker Ford, a generation after the Vietnam War ended and America struggled to move on.

“I felt bad, you knew they belonged to somebody,” says John Benedetto, 64, sitting in his kitchen next to Debbie, 59, his wife of 27 years. “You don’t just throw those away.”

They put the medals in the office desk, figuring they would find the rightful owner — or his survivors — someday. That day would come 17 years later, in a selfless act of honoring a fallen soldier’s service that should make this July Fourth holiday one that the Benedetto and Fitzgibbons families will long remember.

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“Bringing John home” — Debbie’s phrase for returning the medals — required persistence and luck. Some might even view it as going above and beyond the call of duty.

From the moment they found the medals, the Benedettos were intrigued by the mystery surrounding them. But they felt stymied by the search process, and wary about what the outcome might be.

Mark Lorenz for the Boston Globe

The Benedettos of Wakefield wrapped the medals in a miniature American flag and mailed them to a cousin of Fitzgibbons.

They tried the local phone book at first, but there were no Fitzgibbons listed. Where else to look? It was a big country, and tools like Internet search engines were years away.

Busy lives took over. From time to time, the Benedettos would take the medals out and wonder, who was John F. Fitzgibbons? What had he done to earn them? You didn’t serve in ’Nam and earn a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for no good reason, John Benedetto knew. His own father had been a Marine. Fought at Guadalcanal.

Still, he says, they didn’t know the back story, and whether anyone wanted the medals back. “Did the family disown him because he went to Vietnam?” he says, recalling how polarizing that war was, how it divided the country and even families. “You just don’t know.”

A decade passed. Then, seven more years. The medals were, if not forgotten, at least out of mind.

Then, one morning this May, John and Debbie were having coffee in the offices of S. Benedetto & Sons, the family’s leasing business.

For whatever reason — they are still not sure why — John pulled out the medals that morning and looked them over.

“Oh my God,” said Debbie, “you still have those.” She realized the significance of the moment: In the years since the medals had been tucked away, new search tools had come along, and with them the real possibility of finding a veteran named John F. Fitzgibbons.

She rushed home to her computer and embarked on a cyber-recon mission, plugging “John F. Fitzgibbons + Vietnam” into every Web search box she could think of. Up popped a Boston College memorial site. Then she found one for Fitzgibbons’s former high school, Central Catholic High in Lawrence, and a memorial to its war dead. And then another, for the Vietnam Memorial Virtual Wall.

Details of the fallen soldier’s service history began to emerge. He had been a First Lieutenant, B Company, First Battalion, Seventh US Cavalry Regiment, First Air Cavalry Division. Sent to ’Nam on Sept. 11, 1968. Killed in action Nov. 25, less than three months later. Tay Ninh, South Vietnam.

The First Air Cav was heavy stuff, Debbie learned. No division took more casualties in Vietnam, with more than 5,400 dead and 26,000 wounded.

“You get this overwhelming feeling of elation that you’ve found somebody,” she recalls, her voice husky with emotion. “But it’s so sad, too. He was only a kid, yet he had so much going for him. BC. ROTC. Grooming himself to be an officer. Put all this together, I still get goosebumps.”

She stayed at the computer for hours at a time, day after day, searching for surviving family members.

A newspaper obit supplied some names. Back on the BC memorial website, she noticed a brief remembrance by Jack DeVeer, BC class of 1963, who described Fitzgibbons as “a wonderful person/cousin.”

Bingo. With that clue in hand, she found another cousin, the Rev. Richard DeVeer of St. Francis Xavier Parish in South Weymouth. Debbie called his office and left a message. Two days later, a return call.

“Was John Fitzgibbons your cousin?” she asked.

“Yes, he was,” DeVeer replied.

“Did he die in Vietnam?”

“Yes, he did.”

Debbie started to cry. “This is the happiest day of my life,” she choked out.

John and Debbie wrapped the medals in a miniature American flag and mailed them to DeVeer. With Memorial Day approaching, he knew exactly what to do with them.

The oldest of 11 children, John Fitzgibbons grew up in Wakefield and was by all accounts handsome and smart. Fun-loving. Athletic.

“A quiet guy with a great sense of humor,” recalls Paul Delaney, a retired IBM executive who ran track with Fitzgibbons at BC and now lives in South Weymouth. “The best of the best.”

Delaney, who also served in Vietnam, would later cochair a committee that raised funds for BC’s war veterans memorial, dedicated in 2009. Back in 1968, though, he lost track of Fitzgibbons before the latter went off to war. When Delaney later learned of Fitzgibbons’s death, he placed his old friend’s name among 29 Eagle alums who paid the ultimate price in Vietnam.

Fitzgibbons knew could be wounded or killed in action, family members say. He belonged to an air assault team, choppering into white-hot battle zones under enemy fire. In letters home, primarily to his father, he wrote lines like, “Dad, it’s just a matter of time.” And, “Don’t tell Mom how bad it is.” And, “I am sad but I’m not afraid.”

His last letter arrived the weekend after he died, at age 23, his family gathered not for a Thanksgiving meal but for his funeral. “That was especially tough,” says Joyce Fitzgibbons of Tewksbury, who was closest in age to her older brother of all the siblings.

After that, the family did its best to move on, much as America would, and especially other families who had lost loved ones in ’Nam. By the mid-1970s, just a few years after John’s death, his parents, Daniel and Jean Fitzgibbons, were semi-retired from the family business — a linen-rental company — and had moved to Florida.

Seven of the children stayed behind in the family house in Wakefield. In 1980, the house was put on the market and sold.

No one is exactly sure what happened to the medals.

“Emptying a 16-room house was no small job,” wrote Joyce in a June 21 letter to the Benedettos, guessing at the sequence of events. “The timing was such that the family was going to take advantage of an annual sidewalk collection, by the town, of unwanted items. We believe that at least one large box of family collectibles was inadvertently directed for collection.”

Other household items were distributed among family members. Everyone assumed the medals were with one sibling or another. Nobody took inventory.

On May 26, the Sunday before Memorial Day, the Rev. DeVeer rose to give his sermon. John Fitzgibbons’s Purple Heart medal was placed amid the offertory procession, next to the bread and wine, symbolizing Fitzgibbons’s valorous service to his country.

DeVeer spoke about the importance of God in people’s lives and how its absence leads to hatred, prejudice, war. He spoke of Fitzgibbons’s sacrifice, 45 years ago, and how his medals had recently found their way back to the family, a testament to the power of love and selflessness. A church deacon played taps on a bugle at the end of the service.

Paul Delaney, Fitzgibbons’s old BC buddy, is not a regular St. Francis Xavier churchgoer, yet he was there that morning. As he walked into church, DeVeer approached him for a private word.

“Paul,” said DeVeer, “they found John’s medals.”

At her home in Tewksbury, Joyce Fitzgibbons shows a visitor her late brother’s medals and expresses her profound gratitude towards the Benedettos, whom she still has not met in person.

“We will be forever grateful for your kindness and the way you cherished the memory of a young man you did not know — but you knew he mattered to someone,” she wrote in her letter to the Benedettos. “What a wonderful example of loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Arrayed on a table with a photo of John, these keepsakes are wonderful to have, she acknowledges.

“My brother has always been in my heart, though,” Joyce says softly. “I don’t need medals to remember him. In our humanness, we need something tangible for our connection, I suppose. But I’ve always felt close to my brother. A knowing.”

The return of the medals has sparked a familywide conversation about John, she continues, and that’s a very good thing. She would like to take the medals on a road trip from sibling to sibling, currently scattered from Vermont to Georgia.

One stop will most certainly be Forest Glade, a veterans’ cemetery in Wakefield, possibly in the company of the Benedettos.

After finding whom the medals belonged to, Debbie Benedetto, after another exhaustive search, also located where Fitzgibbons is buried.

His gravestone, it turned out, is roughly 50 yards from those of John Benedetto’s father and several other family members. Debbie and John had been driving past John Fitzgibbons’s grave for years. When she solved that final piece of the mystery, she again wept tears of joy.

“We’ll visit with him now,” she promises. “He’ll be a stop on our travels.”

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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