See more of the story

Earl "Sonny" Meyer, a 96-year-old retired farmer from St. Peter, still thinks daily about his time in the infantry during the Korean War: sleepless nights in mountain foxholes, unpredictable and chaotic days as a rifleman and machine-gunner on the front lines, visions of Army buddies dying right next to him.

And when he's not thinking of it, he has a physical reminder: A scar lines his left thigh, and a piece of shrapnel from a mortar remains lodged inside, a source of frequent pain ever since he was injured in 1951.

More than 70 years after his injury, Meyer is suing the U.S. Department of Defense to award him the Purple Heart he believes he deserves and correct what he and his family believe is an injustice.

Though Meyer downplays the importance of receiving the medal — "I know what happened, and I've accepted that," he said — Meyer's three daughters have taken this on as their crusade. His daughters have spent a decade trying to get the Army to give him the prestigious military honor for being wounded or killed while serving. Again and again, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records has rejected the request, citing the lack of documentation of his injury.

One reason for the lack of evidence: Meyer never visited an aid station after being bandaged in the field, so medical records from the immediate aftermath don't exist. The medic who bandaged him, Meyer believes, did not survive the battle and therefore wouldn't have been able to submit paperwork for a Purple Heart. And records that did exist may have burned in a massive 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which destroyed about 18 million official military files — including the majority of records for Army personnel discharged between 1912 and 1960.

Meyer's attorney calls it a Catch-22: The Army board says it's unable to award the honor due to a lack of paperwork, but the lack of paperwork is exactly what Meyer cites as the reason he never received a Purple Heart.

The shrapnel lodged in Meyer's thigh stems from a June 1951 battle in the Kumhwa Valley, where his platoon was trapped by enemy forces. Mortars rained down. A piece of shrapnel hit him, soaking his pants in blood. Meyer radioed for air support, and a medic bandaged him in the field, telling Meyer he'd put his name in for a Purple Heart. Later, while on a hospital ship, Meyer learned only four guys from his company — 7th Division, 31st Regiment, 2nd Platoon, K Company — survived the battle.

For decades afterward, Meyer lived with post-traumatic stress disorder, hating fireworks and sometimes having flashbacks. He was also plagued by survivor's guilt. An injured survivor receiving a medal almost seemed an insult to buddies who'd been killed.

Meyer's daughters didn't even know about his injury until about 10 years ago, when his granddaughter interviewed him for a high school class assignment. As Meyer spoke about war buddies who died, he broke down: "I guess this is why no veterans talk about the war," he told his granddaughter. That's when his daughters embarked on their Purple Heart quest.

"I never even thought about trying to get the medal myself," Meyer said in an interview. "I hadn't told the girls about the injury. You don't talk about that stuff very often. But every day, it goes through your mind."

The lawsuit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota, details Meyer's service history, from serving in the Merchant Marines during World War II — for which he was a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal — to being drafted into the Army in 1950 and landing in Korea on May 17, 1951. It describes Meyer's unit's intense combat and how he saw close friends wounded and killed in action. It tells of the shrapnel injury and another injury to his back a few days later, when he fell down a hill carrying a machine gun. (Unlike the shrapnel injury, the back injury is noted in medical records.)

His records also indicate he received a tetanus shot at a mobile combat hospital: "No reason for a tetanus injection on the battlefield exists other than if the individual had suffered a wound caused by a foreign metallic object — i.e., shrapnel," the lawsuit reads.

In its ruling earlier this year, the Army board cited the lack of documentation about the shrapnel injury for its denial — despite acknowledging that Department of Veterans Affairs physicians declared his thigh wound service-connected.

"Per regulatory guidance," the board wrote, "the applicant must provide or have in the service records substantiating evidence to verify that he was injured, the wound was the result of hostile action, the wound must have required treatment by medical personnel and the medical treatment must have been made a matter of official record."

"I drafted this complaint with the idea that people who'll see it will just say, 'Give me a break — this is just wrong,'" said Meyer's attorney, Alan Anderson of Minneapolis, whose father was a Purple Heart recipient from World War II. "Come on, the guy's got a scar. The VA doctors said it's more likely than not from a metallic mortar fragment. So you're going to basically say the VA doctors are lying?"

"The board cannot simply make a decision that's a Catch-22 and say, 'We can't give you a Purple Heart because there's no record in your files,'" Anderson continued. "That's why this person is applying, because there is no record in his files!"

Meyer's fiercest advocate has been Sen. Amy Klobuchar. When Klobuchar visited Meyer in St. Peter, he regaled her with stories about sharing a barracks in boot camp with her father, Jim Klobuchar.

"Earl Meyer put his life on the line in defense of our freedoms, and we will continue to do all we can to further the work to rightfully honor his service," said Erika Nelson, Klobuchar's state director.

Meyer is healthy, living by himself in St. Peter. He has coffee with friends twice a week at the local American Legion post. He piddles around with woodworking and on his computer.

But his family recognizes there's urgency to their quest: "I hope he gets it while he's still living," said one of his daughters, Cindy Meyer of Le Sueur. "He has guilt, being one that survived. But this would say it's OK that you did survive. He doesn't have to feel guilty anymore."

"It would give him closure," said another of his daughters, Sandy Baker of New Buffalo, Mich. "It would give us all closure."