A Vietnam veteran in Stafford County received an unexpected gift from the same first responders who came to his aid when his house caught fire nearly two months ago.
On Friday, Robert Mihalak was presented a traditional military shadowbox that contained all of the personal military decorations he earned in the 1960s, but then lost in the Feb. 13 fire at his home. The gift was a labor of love by Stafford County firefighters and retired law enforcement officers who took weeks to prepare it.
“Bobby doesn’t have anybody,” said long-time friend and caregiver Mary Ellen Earls. “He lost his kitten, he lost everything.”
The soft-spoken 73-year-old was left almost speechless by the gesture, accepting the memento in the small backyard ceremony at Earls’ home where he now lives with a simple thank you.
“We’re very grateful for what you did for our country,” said Deputy Fire Marshall Daniel Pappas, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant. “We can’t replace the medals that were burned up, but this is the next best thing we can do.”
The desire to do something worthwhile for the former soldier in the wake of the fire was something that radiated throughout the first responder community, many of whom have prior military service.
Following the February housefire, Pappas and another county fire investigator found the scorched remains of a wooden plaque holding Mihalak’s military medals in the living room of the vet’s home. They immediately noticed the “V” device for valor on the remnants of the Bronze Star and realized Mihalak wasn’t an ordinary soldier.
“He was an 11F, which is intelligence and recon,” said Virgil Gray, division chief for emergency management for Stafford County and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “This guy’s a hero.
“He was a scout in front of the infantry and had two combat tours in Vietnam,” he added.
Mihalak was living in his childhood home on Randolph Road in the Ferry Farm area when fire destroyed the 67-year-old structure. Earls said Mihalak lives on a fixed income, earning only $1,100 a month from Social Security, and did not have homeowners insurance.
“I wish it had never happened, but what’s done is done,” said Mihalak. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”
Mihalak enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1965 and was sent to Vietnam in 1966. Two years later, the newly discharged specialist 4 returned to Stafford County, grew his hair out and worked on both coasts of the U.S. as a drywall finisher.
He retired about 10 years ago and inherited the family home in Stafford when his mother passed away in 2014.
Mihalak and a Fredericksburg firefighter were taken to the hospital after the fire. Although the firefighter was treated and released, Mihalak was hospitalized with smoke inhalation and second-degree burns on his face.
It wasn’t Mihalak’s first brush with danger. In an interview last week, he recalled the 1967 operation that earned him the Bronze Star.
“We were on a patrol and walked up on a group of [Vietcong] in a muddy creek bed,” said Mihalak. “After that, all hell broke loose. I was in so many operations like that.”
Mihalak was surprised he received the medal with valor for simply doing his job. He said although it didn’t mean much to him personally at the time, he believed his mother would like to keep it and his other medals as souvenirs.
“I didn’t even want [the Bronze Star] to tell you the truth, but they gave it to me. So I said, the hell with it, you want to give it to me, I’ll take it,” he said.
When Mihalak returned home from Vietnam in 1968, he gave his awards to his mother, who mounted everything together on a plaque and hung it on the living room wall, where it remained for 53 years.
Following the fire, Gray and other volunteers in the department spent weeks looking into Mihalak’s official military service records in an effort to recover his all of his missing medals and awards for his service.
As the items were gathered, the firefighters decided to seal the awards in a shadowbox, which is traditionally presented to service members at their retirement. Retired Stafford County Sheriff’s Captain Timothy O’Leary custom-built Mihalak’s unstained, cherry wood display box from scratch.
“A lot of shadowboxes are thin, I gave this one a bold, 1 1/2-inch-thick outer frame,” said O’Leary. “It has the expression: Look at me and pay attention.”
Mihalak’s shadowbox is filled with all the ribbons, medals, rank insignia and other awards he earned during his years of service. His name is laser-etched at the top of the box, and U.S. Army is etched along the bottom.
Gray, who tracked down all the uniform items for Mihalak’s shadowbox, said although both the Vietnam Service and Vietnam Campaign medals were once readily available at base uniform stores, today they are challenging to locate.
In the search to accumulate every award Mihalak was entitled to wear, Gray contacted three separate medal and ribbon vendors. The box includes Mihalak’s Combat Infantryman Badge and blue cord, the Bronze Star and Army Achievement medals, his name tag, two overseas service bars, the 20th Infantry Regiment patch and specialist 4 collar insignia.
“I was just very proud to help round things up for him,” said Gray. “It was very rewarding.”
Earls said since the loss of his home, Mihalak has suffered two minor strokes and is recovering from a bout of pneumonia that doctors said resulted from the smoke inhalation.
“I have no help, I do everything for him and it’s been hard on him, dealing with the depression after the fire,” Earls said.
She said Mihalak, who has been a friend for nearly a decade, will stay at her home as long as it takes.
“We want to get him settled, make sure he’s well first,” she said. “He’s my best friend. I’m going to pray to God, hand it over to him and see where we come up.”
James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438