Korean War vets take on enormous mission

For John Cole and Jay Wells, properly remembering veterans who fought in a conflict often described as “forgotten” might be painstaking, but it’s absolutely necessary. 

The Top of Utah duo say they’re on a mission to provide all Utah combat veterans of the Korean War with the Republic of South Korea’s “Ambassador For Peace Medal.” 

Made from harvested barbed wire taken from Korea’s 38th parallel north, the circle of latitude that formed the border between North and South Korea prior to the Korean War, Cole says the medals are “the ultimate token of appreciation from the South Korean government” to U.S. service members who fought there some 65 years ago.

Cole and Wells, both combat veterans who work with the Utah Military Order of the Purple Heart, have been teaming with Consul General Han Dong-Man of the South Korea Consulate in San Francisco to provide Utahns with medals. Cole and Wells gather discharge documents from Utah veterans, then relay the information to Dong-Man’s office. The San Francisco consulate then makes arrangements with South Korean officials, who ship the medals back to the United States.

They began their efforts in 2013. To date, Coles and Wells say about 800 Utahns have received the medal. They have a list of another 175 future recipients, but they say there are many more out there.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Utah has 14,253 living Korean War veterans. 

“It’s been more difficult than we thought it would be,” Cole said. “We know there are a lot more of them out there, beyond what we’ve been able to contact.”

Cole said he and Wells rely on word of mouth and sporadic media coverage to help publicize their project.

“Some people have told us it’s a project we’ll never finish, but what we are supposed to do?” Cole said. “It’s a lot of work, tracking all these names down, but we want to get everyone we possibly can.”

Eligibility requirements for the medal are simple: A veteran must have served in combat during the Korean conflict between June 25, 1950, and July 27, 1953, when the Korean Armistice Agreement ended the war. Posthumous medals are also awarded, as long as the proper discharge forms are provided.

Cole says there are no costs associated with the medal; it’s paid for entirely by the South Korean government. 

According to the VA, more than 36,500 American soldiers died during the Korean War, and more than 103,000 were wounded. Nearly 8,000 were declared missing in action, and 4,700 were taken as prisoners of war.

But because of its relative lack of public attention, the Korean conflict is often called “The Forgotten War” or “The Unknown War.” Cole, who fought in both World War II and Korea, says the former has been “historically overshadowed” by being sandwiched between World War II and Vietnam.

“Those two wars obviously got a lot more attention,” he said. “But we can’t let those from the Korean War, living or dead, be forgotten. And in the end, that’s why we’re doing this.”

For more information on the Ambassador of Peace Medal, contact Cole at 801-690-6837.

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