FAIRBANKS — The photograph on Facebook of a charred Purple Heart medal and badly burned American flag spurred a small team of soldiers from Clear Air Force Station, near Anderson, to take action and help someone more than 3,000 miles away.
Tech Sgt. Ricky Ramos found the picture on Facebook that day in August 2011, posted by a former elementary school classmate in Kansas.
The story behind the photo was terrifying in its randomness.
A propane facility in Butler County, Kan., had exploded, sending 100-pound propane tanks flying into the air.
When it was all over, one person died and three houses were destroyed.
One of those propane tanks hit the home of Annette Cook. No one was home, but the house was demolished, along with all her personal possessions.
Among possessions seemingly gone forever were her grandfather’s Purple Heart and her father’s American flag. Both were military veterans.
Ramos was moved by her plight. He went to elementary school with Cook but lost contact with her long ago.
He summoned his team at Clear, where he works as a security forces fire team leader for the Alaska Air National Guard’s 213th Space Warning Squadron.
“You think you’re having a bad day?” he told them, then showed the photos of destruction. “This is a bad day.”
“What are we gonna do about it,” they replied.
They decided to try to replace the destroyed medal. Thus began the Purple Heart Project.
Ramos called the Cooks and told them not to worry, his team would search for a replacement Purple Heart.
Of course, her reaction was, “You’re who? You’re calling from where?”
Although his sister and her sister remain close friends, they hadn’t seen each other since probably eighth grade.
“We just saw it as an opportunity to help a family,” Ramos said.
The fact that her father and grandfather were both veterans spurred them on.
And so, they began researching Cook’s father and grandfather.
They discovered Fireman First Class Russell E. Shaw, her grandfather, served on the destroyer USS Drexler during World War II. Shaw was 23 years old when he died on May 28, 1945. He was on board when the ship sank, one of 158 victims of a Japanese kamikaze attack as the Drexler headed toward Okinawa.
Ramos and his team also took steps to obtain a replacement Purple Heart medal and placed it in a shadow box with a photograph of the ship and an engraved plaque.
Ramos found the photo of the ship on a website. A technology-savvy clerk at Walmart helped render the photo for display.
Another helpful clerk at Michael’s reminded Ramos that he could save money on the shadow box by purchasing it a few days later during Military Appreciation Day.
The research and legwork took many months. The cost for all of it was borne by the team at Clear.
The American flag, burned beyond repair, belonged to Cook’s father, Air Force Major Jerry A. Shaw, a retired missile officer. He died in an automobile accident after retirement.
The security crew obtained another American flag, held a flag-folding ceremony in Shaw’s honor, added some patches from their unit and sent that to the family in Kansas as well.
The Clear team was glad when the box finally arrived.
Annette Cook was speechless.
“I’m so touched,” she told them. “You guys went so far and beyond. It really choked me up.”
She told them they are now a part of her family.
Ramos laughed with delight.
“She’s stuck with us,” he said. “We adopted her.”
Ramos said he and his team hold a great sense of honor and respect for the Cook family, which has a legacy of service to the nation.
“These guys opened the doors of freedom that we walk through every day,” Ramos said. “They have given so much and we were more than happy to do this for their family.”
Ramos came to Clear for a temporary 90-day posting in 2005, from Kansas.
“I was only supposed to be here 90 days,” he said. “I stayed another 90, then had to call my wife and explain that I wanted to move to Alaska.”
He has been here ever since.
This isn’t the first time the security team has put out energy to help others. They work at Clear, but they live all over the state — Fairbanks, Wasilla and the Healy area.
They are collecting boots and uniforms for the North Pole Junior ROTC program, they help with Toys For Tots, and do a few personal projects as well, including providing 60 hours of free security at the North Pole Ice Park last year.
Ramos also spearheads Project Santa, sending personal holiday letters to children of friends.
Kris Capps is a freelance writer living in Denali Park. She also writes a weekly column for the News-Miner.