Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole's grave in the Netherlands. Credit: Courtesy / Bruce Cole

A moment that at first seemed like a highlight in the history of Robert G. Cole Middle and High School this month appears to have been founded on a fraudulent war medal inscription. But the initial mistake may turn out to be cause for the school to celebrate a donation from the son of its namesake.

At a pre-Veterans Day celebration in the school’s gym Nov. 8, the school at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston unveiled a Purple Heart medal inscribed with the name of Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole. The medal had been donated to the school by a woman in Long Island, New York, who said she bought it at a gun show.

The school’s JROTC Senior Instructor Col. William LaChance said he accepted the donated medal after failing to locate any living relatives of Cole. After the ceremony, however, word began reaching school officials that Cole’s son was not only alive but also in possession of his father’s Purple Heart, throwing the authenticity of the donated Purple Heart into doubt. 

Cole’s only child, Robert Bruce Cole, is now 77 years old, and resides in Bulverde, north of San Antonio. He was certain the school did not have his father’s Purple Heart because he kept both that medal and his dad’s Medal of Honor in a safe deposit box at a bank. The medals were awarded posthumously and presented to his mother at Fort Sam Houston when he was a baby.“Everybody recognizes it for what it is: just a mistake,” Cole told the Rivard Report. “… Everybody was well-intentioned.”The inscription bearing the name of Robert G. Cole, it seemed, apparently had been added at some point to the medal donated to the school. Dishonesty surrounding military medals and honors is common, said Bill Crumlett, senior vice commander with the San Antonio chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a veterans service organization for recipients of the medal.

“We have seen an awful lot of frauds,” he said. “People that claim they have medals they don’t have, but I’ve never seen it where a medal was forged like that. That’s really strange.”

Bruce Cole said he doesn’t own a computer and doesn’t text or email, so the first he heard about the story of the donated medal was from his half-sister two days after the school’s ceremony.

While he certainly was surprised to learn the school thought he was no longer living, he focused his attention more on the mistake regarding the medal.

“I immediately knew it was a fraud,” he said about the school’s medal. “And I just thought the school’s reputation is going to be all shot to hell.”

But as Cole watched news coverage of the school’s ceremony, he said he also was overwhelmed by the excitement and reverence the school showed for the medal and the legacy of his father, a World War II hero who distinguished himself in the days following the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He was killed by a German sniper in the Netherlands in September 1944. 

“I was amazed at the sentiment that the principal and everybody there showed for something like that,” Bruce Cole said. “I had no idea that something like that would have that kind of an impact, and I decided at that point that I’m going to go ahead and make a donation to the school of the medal so that they can complete their promise to their students of having this thing.” 

After visiting his safe deposit box Wednesday to make sure the medals were still there, he called LaChance to tell him a mistake had been made.

“I said, ‘I’ve got the medal, I’ve put my hands on it. That’s it. You’ve got a fake. There’s no question about it,’” Cole said.

He said he plans to meet with LaChance and school officials sometime this week to discuss donating his father’s Purple Heart and possibly other memorabilia belonging to his father.

LaChance said he hopes to use the mixup as a teaching moment for the students, and to further honor the school’s namesake.

“My only concern is that we continue to honor the legacy of Lt. Col. Robert G. Cole,” he said. “And everything else I [couldn’t] care less about.”

When he was first contacted about the medal donation, LaChance said he began looking for Robert G. Cole’s son and found 20 Bruce Coles listed in Texas. He tried contacting each one and all led to dead ends. Bruce Cole’s lack of an online footprint made the task more difficult. Only later did LaChance realize part of the problem was that, like his father, the younger Cole’s first name is Robert.

Bruce Cole also had stopped visiting the school about 10 years ago, so school officials didn’t know how to reach him or verify that he was still alive.

Cole praised the donor of the inauthentic medal, saying he was impressed that she chose to donate it because of its apparent value as a medal awarded to a D-Day hero.

Crumlett said it’s not uncommon for Purple Hearts and other military medals to get separated from their owners and sometimes find their way back, but only if the name is inscribed on the back. He said there is no other tracking system for determining which soldier originally was awarded which medal. The government no longer inscribes Purple Hearts with the recipient’s name, according to Crumlett.

“There have been many cases where a medal has been lost and then returned to the owner or a descendant of the owner many years later,” Crumlett said. “But I’ve never seen it where someone’s name was inscribed there when it wasn’t correct. Why someone would copy someone’s name on the back of a Purple Heart, I can’t even imagine.”

But he said it’s not the first time he’s heard of a cottage industry faking inscriptions. He said during the Vietnam War, in which he served, shops would find the names and identification of U.S. soldiers and inscribe them on Zippo lighters or dog tags to make them appear to be the lost property of an actual soldier. They would then sell them to tourists or family members.

But if the fraudulent inscription on the Purple Heart donated to the school was intended to bring in cash, according to Crumlett’s estimation, the scheme could only work on someone with little knowledge of the monetary value of Purple Heart medals.

The Purple Heart donor, Lisa Ludwig, told the Rivard Report she had been led to believe the medal with Cole’s name on it was worth $2,500. But Crumlett discounted the idea that Purple Hearts could be sold for any significant amount.

“I don’t think they’re worth anything cash-wise,” he said.

He also did not think there would be much recourse for pursuing and punishing whoever faked the inscription, despite the passage into law of the Stolen Valor Act. The 2013 law made it a crime for someone to falsely represent themselves as a recipient of any U.S. military decoration or medal in order to obtain a financial or other benefit, among other provisions.

“Any time anyone’s tried to prosecute under the Stolen Valor Act, the judges, by and large, have thrown it out,” Crumlett said.

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.