Mark Costa, a Fall River probation officer, was overseeing about 200 offenders when a handwritten note in one of their files stopped him cold. It was a victim impact letter from the son of a World War II veteran whose medals had been stolen from his room at an assisted living center.
“He wanted to be buried with these medals,” the son, Fred Sylvia, had written. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him they had been stolen.”
Sylvia’s father died in February 2012, buried without the medals he earned as a rifleman in the European Theater. Costa did not see the letter until 2014, after the case had worked its way through the court and after he was assigned the woman who helped fence the medals and other property.
The letter gnawed at Costa, a veteran himself. On his own, he reached out to Fall River’s director of veterans’ services to see whether there was anything they might do. There was. On Tuesday, some two years later, Costa boarded a plane for Florida, carrying replacement medals for a veteran he never met, on his way to see a man he had talked to only by phone.
Down in Vero Beach, Fred Sylvia had tried hard to forget what happened to his father in the end, knowing none of his possessions was recovered. Of everything stolen, a gold watch and camera equipment included, the medals were by far the most painful to lose. During his father’s burial in New Bedford’s Pine Grove Cemetery, as an honor guard played taps and presented him with a folded flag, Sylvia could think only of the medals.
His father, Frederick C. Sylvia Jr., was a throwback to another era, an industrious and soft-spoken man who still lived in his own home as a widower in his 90s, turning out dollhouses in his workshop for his great-granddaughters. He had grown up on a farm in Depression-era Dartmouth — the son of the caretaker at Barney’s Joy, an oceanfront estate — rising early to tend animals and harvest crops.
“He had very simple values,” said Fred, his only child, now 73 and a retired educator. “You have a job to do, you get it done. You don’t complain about it, you don’t brag about it, you do it.”
The elder Sylvia was working as a lathe operator in New Bedford, a 25-year-old with a wife and young son, when he felt called to serve in World War II, enlisting in July 1944. He shipped out from Boston and saw combat in the Rhineland and the Ardennes, participating in the Battle of the Bulge, enduring brutal fighting as well as one of the bitterest winters on record.
He received the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, the Victory Medal, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, also known as the EAME Ribbon.
He came home in 1946, Corporal Sylvia of Company I, 329th Infantry, resuming his work as Fred Sylvia the lathe operator, making drill bits.
He lived a quiet, meaningful life as husband and father, active in church and with the Masons, an avid woodworker and amateur photographer. Like so many, he rarely spoke of the war, even when his son asked. But he never missed an Army reunion, and he kept the medals close, in a desk drawer.
His health declined suddenly after emergency bladder surgery in 2011, followed by a persistent infection and then a stroke, around his 93rd birthday. Frederick Sylvia III moved his father into a New Bedford-area assisted living center for a few weeks, but it became clear he needed a nursing home. As the family packed his room, Fred discovered that his father’s desk had been looted. Opening one of the medal boxes, he found only an impression on the felt.
But some of the anger and anguish Sylvia felt, burying his father without those medals, subsided after a worker at the facility ultimately confessed; he accepted the prosecution of that man and the woman who helped him as a kind of closure. Several years passed. Then his phone rang in 2016, a probation officer named Mark Costa calling from Fall River.
Costa had always been someone who felt a sense of duty — he spent six years in the Army National Guard out of high school, to pay for college — and took his work home with him. Now 43, he is a longtime member of the Fall River School Committee.
By day, he spent nearly a decade as a social worker and special investigator for what is now the Department of Children and Families, working with children who suffered the worst abuse and neglect, but he found it took too much of a toll as a young father of three.
In 2007, he switched to the Probation Service and embraced the work immediately, finding satisfaction in helping people stick to a court-ordered plan and try to avoid incarceration, seeing their rehabilitation as a way to help victims, too.
The woman who helped fence the stolen medals was not one of the probationers he saw most often. But that letter stayed with Costa, whose father and brother-in-law were also veterans.
“This one really hit home for me,” he said.
With the help of Fall River’s veterans agent, Ray Hague, and Mary Vezina, an investigator in his office, they eventually persuaded the Department of Defense to issue new medals. Through the district attorney’s office, Costa obtained a number for Sylvia. On the other end, the veteran’s son could hardly believe it.
Costa envisioned driving over and presenting the medals on Veterans Day. Then he learned Fred Sylvia had retired to Florida. He considered mailing the medals, but it felt wrong, especially as he pictured all that Frederick Sylvia Jr. had sacrificed and endured to receive them.
So Costa made plans to fly down with his wife, paying out of pocket. On Wednesday, he will present the medals to Sylvia in a ceremony at the Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary in Vero Beach, which was created in 1964 to honor World War II vets and has been expanded to honor all. “Lest we forget,” a marker there reads.