Spring Lake historian surprised by trifecta of awards for his work to bring home Purple Hearts

Spring Lake historian and veterans advocate Chris Petras was honored to be invited to the re-dedication ceremony of the Great Grove Memorial on the Michigan State University Campus earlier this year. 

He was to receive a certificate of appreciation for his work to bring 20 Purple Hearts home to the veterans killed or injured in World War I.

“In my mind, I was going to come up to the podium and receive a certificate of appreciation, which was plenty. It was more than enough for the work that I have done,” Petras says. “When the moment came when (Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency) Director (Brian) Love said ‘and that’s not all,’ I didn’t know what to think.”

Standing in that grove of 33 oak trees, one for each of the 33 students and alumni of the Michigan Agricultural College — now Michigan State University — who was killed in World War I, Love also presented Petras with the Distinguished Service Medal on behalf of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as well as a Minute Man statue from the Michigan Army National Guard.

Courtesy Michigan Veterans Affairs AgencyThe Minute Man statue stands at the feet of Chris Petras after he was honored for his work to ensure WWI veterans received their Purple Hearts posthumously.

Petras says now he was “beyond humbled and honored to receive the trifecta of awards.

“I didn’t really have time to think until I got home. That’s when it all sank in. What an honor it was to receive the medal and the Minute Man Award from the Army National Guard,” Petras says. “I’ve been surprised at how my work has been known throughout the state and outside the state.”

The ceremony

The presentation was conducted during the re-dedication of the Great Grove Memorial on the Michigan State University campus by the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and Michigan State University.

The ceremony also included the 126th Army Band; colors presented by the First Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment; invocation from Chaplin Gabriel Marquez; and remarks from Brigadier General Jefferey Terrill of the Michigan National Guard. Descendants of Private William Bryan Lutz, who is listed on the Memorial Grove plaque, attended the ceremony as well. 

Petras, who earned his doctorate in public administration/public policy from Western Michigan University, began researching the unawarded Purple Heart medals of Grand Haven soldiers who served in WWI after his work on a book and documentary film commemorating the 100 years of the Charles A. Conklin American Legion Post 28 in Grand Haven.

The catalyst

The Purple Heart is the only U.S. military medal for which a soldier does not need to be nominated. They must be wounded or killed in action.

Conklin, Petras learned, had been wounded in action and died three days later from his wounds. However, he had never received his Purple Heart to which he was entitled.

Petras reached out to Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, to start the application process and discovered the building where the relevant records had been stored had burned down in 1973. Without documentation, Conklin could not be honored with a Purple Heart.

However, Petras remembered a document from his own research that stated Conklin died from wounds received in action. It was this documentation that made a resubmission and posthumous Purple Heart for Charles A. Conklin possible.

It was the catalyst.

Next, he investigated the record of  Sgt. Alvin Jonker for whom the Grand Haven Veterans of Foreign Wars Post is named, and found he, too, was eligible for a Purple Heart. 

“As I read more and more and researched more extensively the whole context and environment of WWI and what these soldiers went through — by the time I had moved into researching the 17 it was the least I could do for the service they gave to the country,” Petras says.

He hopes his work ignites the curiosity in people of their ancestors and their military service.

“Here are 17 (additional) medals that represent 17 young men from Grand Haven, Mich., who raised their right hands and swore to defend the country and the constitution. They had no idea where they were going. Many of them had never been out of Grand Haven in their whole lives. The more I was studying their journeys and putting the pieces together — all of our military service men and women are incredible,” Petras says. “If I hit a dead end, I dig under that dead end and keep going, because If they would have stopped at a dead end we wouldn’t be here today.”
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