LeRoy Wells: Empowered to Generate Value for All

by Amber Jurgensen

It was business as usual for LeRoy Wells, the location manager at Gerdau Metals Recycling in Waynesboro, Virginia, on Sept. 20. That is until equipment operator James Lowe came into Wells’ office with something in his hand.

“James came to me and said, ‘You were in the military. Hey, do you want this?’” Wells recalls.

Wells looked to see what Lowe was showing him. In a small decorative box was a medal. And not just any medal. It was a Purple Heart. 

The Purple Heart Medal is given to members of the United States Armed Forces who are either wounded in action or killed in action or from wounds received in action. It is an honor of great distinction.

Lowe had found the medal while inspecting a vehicle that had been purchased by Gerdau for scrap to melt into steel. The inspection was for hazardous materials and is part of Gerdau’s process of receiving vehicles. Gerdau steel is made from 99% scrap materials, such as old vehicles.

The Purple Heart was found by James Lowe in a car bought to be melted into steel.
The Purple Heart was found by James Lowe in a car bought to be melted into steel.

Wells knew what he had to do: find the family.

“I couldn’t get it out of his hands fast enough,” Wells said. “I had never actually held a Purple Heart in my hand.”

The same day, they began looking through the car, which had been crushed, for clues to who the owner of the medal was.

Both Lowe and Wells felt connected to the mission. Lowe’s son is in the Marines. Wells served in the Navy from 1977 to 1983 and retired in 1985 as a result of a service-related illness.

“As a veteran, it’s important for the family to remember their great father,” Wells said. “It’s my duty, it’s our duty, to return this valuable to the rightful owner.”

Their search yielded some information: medical paperwork from the military with a name, Frank C. Wayman.

James Lowe, James Johnson, Melissa Tooley, Matt Cook and Leroy Wells
James Lowe, James Johnson, Melissa Tooley, Matt Cook and Leroy Wells

That night, Wells and his wife, Nancy, took to Facebook to find anyone connected to a Frank C. Wayman. They reached out through private message to any Wayman they could find on the social media platform.

Word got out. Congressman Ben Cline reached out to Wells to offer his office’s assistance. A news crew came to cover the story, which servicemembers around the country saw.

“There’s a camaraderie, a brotherhood, a sisterhood, with all veterans no matter what branch,” Wells said. “It was interesting to see the response on Facebook – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, even a couple of Coast Guard members chiming in that they hoped we would find the family.”

Then, seven days later, someone named Crystal Gunn contacted Wells. She said Frank C. Wayman was her grandfather.

“Everything she was telling us over the phone matched what we were seeing from the car,” Wells said.

Wayman had been a World War II veteran who passed away in 1986, Gunn told Wells. Wayman’s son, Frank C. Wayman Jr., had abandoned the car in 2015. After, they realized Wayman’s Purple Heart was probably in the vehicle.

“The family thought it had been lost forever,” Wells said.

Wells and his wife are looking forward to returning the medal to its owners.

 “It’s an honor to be able to return it to the family. I would hope if the situation had been reversed, someone would return it to me,” Wells said. “I think it’s important in everyday life, as well as in business, to do the right thing. In life, if you do the right thing it will come back to you two-fold, three-fold. That’s what I tell my kids, the Gerdau team, to benefit the business, customers, and in this case, the family."