Dave Kalbaugh isn’t at all sure what made him peek inside the cardboard box that he was toting to the Dumpster.
It was just one among a tower of crates headed for the trash at Aladdin Self Storage in Louisville, KY. The previous owner of the business had devoted a trio of storage units to office items and junk. But when Dave’s wife, Stephanie, took over as property manager last June, she soon realized those units were lost revenue. Move the mops, chairs and old paper records to a smaller unit, and throw out everything else, and she could shorten the waiting list for larger units by three.
It was as though Kalbaugh was hand-picked to open the crate that August day. He had served 10 years in the Air Force, most of it overseas. He took part in Desert Storm and Desert Shield. His dad, a Navy veteran of 24 years, served in Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs. Even his grandfathers were in the military.
So he immediately knew what he was looking at when he opened that box, and it stunned him. There were military medals, in a frame, about a dozen of them: good conduct medals and marksmanship medals, and the kinds of medals that heroes earn—a Purple Heart with three oak clusters, each cluster representing another injury. There were two awards for valor under fire–a Silver Star (the Army’s third highest commendation) and a Bronze Star with a tiny V indicating the heroism (the Army’s fourth highest award).
Dave carried the box to the office. “I can’t throw this away,” he told Stephanie. “We have to find out who owns them.”
A certificate in the box bore the name of Anthony Grunder, but the couple couldn’t be sure the name even belonged with the medals. Stephanie searched storage company records to see whether anyone named Grunder ever had rented a unit. She found nothing.
But Stephanie figured that if anyone knew who Anthony Grunder was, it would be her customers; some had been doing business with the storage company for years. She put the medals out, and Dave eventually hung them on the wall. Customers reacted instantly; the space seemed nearly sacred.
“When men came in and saw it, as soon as they glanced at it, they were drawn to it,” Stephanie said. “They would start telling stories of when they were in the military, when their father was in the military.”
As she watched each man’s face, Stephanie felt a bond with the medals and her customers.
“Sometimes their eyes would tear up. One man, he came in, and he stood there and saluted. He just stood there for a long time. I said, ‘Are you OK?’” The man, in his late 70s she guesses, nodded. “It just takes me back,” he told her. “This is a hero.”
Stephanie said: “They all wanted to tell what each medal represented. They all had a story. Sometimes they’d make up a story. They’d say, ‘I bet he saved somebody’s life.’ They’d say, ‘His son needs these medals, or his daughter or his grandson.’ They’d get emotional, then I’d start feeling emotional. I was like, ‘We have to find this guy.’”
Recently, a customer suggested that Stephanie contact a local TV station, WAVE 3, the NBC affiliate in Louisville. The station aired a brief story on the find, and Stephanie’s phone started ringing. She received so many emails that her old cellphone conked out from the pressure. If the callers hadn’t searched Google for Anthony Grunder and come up with contact information, they simply wanted to thank her for saving the medals.
But nine minutes after the story aired, the mystery was solved.
About five miles from the storage business, Anthony Grunder III was dozing in his La-Z-Boy, the TV on, when somehow through his sleep, he heard his name, said his wife, Caroline.
“He wasn’t even sure if it was the real thing. He actually thought he was dreaming,” Caroline said.
Tony Grunder quickly picked up the TV remote, hit record, and grew alert with the realization that there on TV were his father’s medals.
Stephanie was driving home from work moments after the story aired when her phone rang. “I’m Anthony Grunder,” the caller said.
“He was crying. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. And I’m trying not to cry,” Stephanie recalled. “I said, ‘You are fine!’”
Stephanie had to pull over her car. This was too much to handle while she was driving.
“I have your medals,” she told him.
“They’re my dad’s,” the son replied. “Those are my father’s medals.”
It turned out that Tony Grunder had spent his a lot of time just paces from those medals. He works at the Ford truck factory just around the corner from the storage facility. He had no mementos from his father, who died in 1991—just some photos. The following day, a crew from the TV station met Tony Grunder and the Kalbaughs at the storage business, and Stephanie and Dave returned the medals to the honoree’s son.
“It was wonderful,” Stephanie said. “When we handed them to him, you would have thought we handed him a lottery check.”
In return, the couple asked for a picture of Grunder’s dad. It now hangs where the medals were.
The Grunders and the Kalbaughs can only speculate about how the medals ended up in a storage unit, or how they landed in a unit that the storage facility kept for itself. Since the story aired, Tony Grunder has been inundated with phone calls and emails. People are touched by the story of the returned medals.
“We’ve had people calling us from California and Florida,” Caroline Grunder said.
Caroline said a second frame full of medals remains missing. Grunder’s father kept a room for all his war memorabilia, all of which also has vanished.
“His dad loved his country,” Caroline said. “He was 100 percent a serviceman to the day he died. He loved his family, and he loved his country.”
Photos of the Grunders by Joey Harrison