A charred Bronze Star and Purple Heart were somewhere in the ashes after a wildfire destroyed Bill Cronkrite's house and outbuildings—medals awarded to his son who was killed in Iraq in 2004.
When a California Southern Baptist assessment team visited the site after this summer's 7,609-acre Border Fire, the medals of the late Army Sgt. Brud Joseph Cronkrite became a priority.
"[Bill Cronkrite] told me he would love to have his son's Bronze Star and Purple Heart that were lost in the fire," said team leader Kendrick Neal, associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Mira Mesa in San Diego.
Neal, a 12-year Marine Corps veteran, had a sifter in the back of his truck, so he and team chaplain Jerry Shirley, a retired Navy chaplain from Escandido, Calif., immediately began searching for the lost medals.
They quickly found one service medal that had been badly burned. The Bronze Star and Purple Heart were still missing, but Neal and other DR volunteers refused to give up.
"There is a brotherhood there," Neal said of his respect as a military veteran for the sacrifice made by Bill Cronkrite's son.
Neal returned to the site with another cleanup team led by fellow DR "blue cap" Ken Clark from La Habra, Calif., to continue the search. After several hours of sifting through the ash they located the Bronze Star, but it had been badly charred in what had been a cedar chest.
"We go in after a fire and do what we call an 'ash-out,'" Neal said of the work California Baptist teams tackled in mid-July at several homes and farms that were destroyed in San Diego County's rural Potrero community. "We will clean the property and give the residents a clean foundation to restart building on."
The ash-out also entails sifting damaged areas for valuables that might be salvaged.
The Purple Heart was never found in the debris.
"Being in Mira Mesa, we're about two miles away from the Marine Corps base, and we have several people in our church who are active in the military," said Neal, who became involved in disaster relief ministry when he moved to California three years ago. "This one Marine was able to contact the headquarters and get me the medals and award citations as well as a flag that was flown over the base in honor of the gentleman's son."
It is customary on the final day of work at a site for a Bible signed by the Baptist team to be given to the homeowner.
"But this day," Neal said, "we were able to present a Bible along with the medals and flag" in a brief gathering at a flagpole on Cronkrite's property where an American flag that survived the wildfire was flying.
Cronkrite broke down in tears of surprise and gratitude.
Retired Master Sgt. Nathan Gaines, a DR team member also from First Baptist Church of Mira Mesa in San Diego, read the restored Bronze Star citation to Cronkrite. Video of the moment, which closed in prayer for Cronkrite, can be viewed at https://youtu.be/Cgyn4m_Diy8.
Moments like these, Neal said, are what keep him passionate about disaster relief ministry.
"The biggest reward is having the opportunity to share the hope of Jesus with people who are hopeless," Neal said. "Just being able to remove ash or get the mud out of their house, and seeing the hope that provides—it has been great."
San Diego County officially declared Aug. 2 "California Southern Baptist Relief Day" in recognition of the Baptist volunteers' work.
A proclamation presented by the county's vice chairwoman, Dianne Jacob, noted that the volunteers, in providing cleanup without cost, "displayed compassion and went above and beyond to serve the residents of Potrero by not only removing debris, but also sifting through ash and rubble to find and return precious heirlooms and mementos that survived the wildfire."
The proclamation said Baptists' effort toward "enhancing the safety and wellbeing of residents has made this organization a valuable asset not only to the community of Potrero, but to the entire region."