Heather Breunig remembers thinking of her uncle as a superhero, tall and distinguished in his U.S. Air Force uniform.
“He was just a wonderful, wonderful man who loved our country, loved his family and put his life on the line for everyone,” the Baraboo woman said of Senior Master Sgt. Edward Holloway.
When she was young, Breunig said Holloway — who didn’t have any children of his own — treated her like a daughter, taking her out to do “fun things” whenever he was on leave. He served from 1970-1991.
“No matter where he was in the world, he was just always right there,” she said.
But when Holloway died of cancer in 2005, Breunig’s family lost touch with his last wife, with whom he lived in Florida. Breunig said she doesn’t know what happened at that point to Holloway’s shadow box, which displayed the awards and medals he earned during his 21 years in the service.
Until retired firefighter David Sackman came across it at a Florida thrift store in early July. It was marked for sale for $99.99.
As part of a “large military family,” Sackman of Pensacola, Florida, said the idea of such a significant personal item being sold in a thrift store “just kind of infuriated me.” He suggested the store should have looked into donating it to a military organization that would be able to find its “rightful owner.”
“It’s somebody’s career,” he said of the shadow box. “It’s somebody’s legacy.”
But since the store hadn’t, he took the matter into his own hands. Sackman said he took a picture of the box, posted it on Facebook and tried to find information about Holloway online, enlisting help from his fellow Fire and Iron Motorcycle Club members.
The following Monday, Sackman returned to the thrift store.
“I convinced them that they’re not going to sell it and that I’m leaving with it one way or another,” Sackman said. “Pretty much told them that they’re trying to sell stolen valor, and there’s no way that I was going to let them do that and that I’m taking it and finding the relatives.”
An out-of-state assist
John Hilfirty, a veteran from North Carolina and a member of the same motorcycle club, signed on to help.
“It was kind of instantaneous,” Hilfirty said of why he wanted to help. “It just kind of reached out and touched me. I’m a veteran myself. I was Air Force, and I have a shadow box like that.”
Based on the medals displayed, Hilfirty said Holloway’s career was “obviously distinguished and exemplary.” He couldn’t imagine that anyone in Holloway’s family had decided to discard it — assuming instead the box had been lost by some accident — so he dug into researching Holloway in order to return the box to family. Using U.S. Air Force Facebook pages, Hilfirty said he managed to find Breunig in just a few days.
He tried to connect with her on Facebook, but Breunig ignored his requests because she didn’t know him. After a few days, he reached out to Breunig’s adult son, then her ex-husband — a veteran — and, finally, her 20-year-old daughter. Breunig said that last contact triggered the “momma bear” in her. She messaged Hilfirty 20 minutes later to find out why he was contacting her family.
Hilfirty explained he had found her uncle’s shadow box and wanted to return it to her. Still skeptical of a stranger across the internet, Breunig said she didn’t believe his story until he sent her photos of the box and her uncle’s gravesite in Florida.
“I have a really big heart, and I want to believe people, but you have to be protective these days,” Breunig said. “You just never know.”
She offered to pay Hilfirty to ship the box to her, but he insisted on delivering it himself — another red flag, Breunig said — because he was planning to drive across the country anyway for a motorcycle rally and Fire and Iron event in South Dakota.
“I still didn’t believe it until it happened,” she said.
Of course, Breunig wasn’t going to compromise her own safety. She arranged to meet him outside the Baraboo Municipal Building with a police lieutenant, Mayor Mike Palm, her mother and NBC15 present on the morning of Aug. 5.
“It was so emotional,” Breunig said, her voice choked with emotion Thursday at the memory. “It was amazing. It brought my faith back in humanity.”
Breunig plans to keep the box “for a while.” She also wants to research her uncle’s service record, starting with the Sauk County Veterans Service Office. Hilfirty explained to her what some of Holloway’s medals signified.
“Ultimately, my goal is to keep it in the family,” Breunig said. “The best gift you can give a serviceman is to tell their legacy. That’s how we honor our veterans; that’s how we support them. Tell their story and keep their legacy alive.”
Hilfirty had shipped the shadow box to fellow Fire and Iron member Ryan Smith of Sparta ahead of the meeting. Smith, a Marine Corp veteran, cleaned it up, made some repairs and attached a hanger to the back so Breunig could hang it on her wall. When Hilfirty and several other club members drove through Wisconsin, Smith gave them a place to stay and then joined them on the trip to Baraboo.
Seeing Breunig accept the shadow box was “kind of overwhelming,” Smith said.
“She was so appreciative, and I was just so happy that I was a part of the whole process. I mean, that was one of the highlights of my life, you know, to see her reaction and everything,” he said. “She thanked us, but I was happier that she received it and to see her reaction and everything — that was thanks enough.”
Hilfirty agreed, adding that he was glad to see the shadow box had value to someone in Holloway’s family who would take care of it.
“I think it’ll encourage Heather to do something like this and pay it forward, and I think other people are going to see this and they’re going to pay it forward, also,” Hilfirty said. “I think the whole story is just going to perpetuate good in a lot of people, and we need more of that.”
Club helps ‘family’
Fire and Iron spans the U.S. with several chapters and raises money for various charities. Its membership includes current and retired firefighters, as well as dispatchers, emergency responders and others who work with fire departments.
Smith and Sackman described the club as a brotherhood that helps its “family” whenever they need anything. Sackman noted many members have served in the military.
“When my brother reached out and said ‘I need a place to send it (the box) to,’ I didn’t hesitate, because that’s what family do,” Smith said.
No one in the network of Fire and Iron members would accept a reward for making the reunion possible, Breunig said, though she wants to figure out how to repay them. She said she “would love to see them honored in a really special way” and suggested she might shift her business — which provides marketing for small businesses — to help veterans more.
“Maybe this is my wakeup call,” she said.
And ever since NBC15 broke her story, she said her “phone has been blowing up” with messages from her newfound “extended family” — from all of the people who helped get the shadow box to her, as well as Wisconsin-based Fire and Iron members, with whom she’s planning to have dinner.
“Veterans from all over the country have been reaching out to me that knew my uncle or saw this story and, you know, it’s been this chain reaction,” Breunig said.