Dec. 23, 2011— -- A pawn shop is an unusual place for a Purple Heart, a badge that symbolizes courage and patriotism and is awarded to U.S. soldiers killed or wounded in battle.
But in a small Michigan town, hard economic times forced one anonymous soldier to part with what may have been the biggest symbol of his military achievement.
A-Z Outlet owner Bryan VandenBosch says a Purple Heart was sold to him in November by a West Michigan man serving in Afghanistan. The servicemember, who pawned off the precious medal because he reportedly needed money, declined an interview request with the Holland Sentinel, which first reported the story.
"He was falling on hard times," VandenBosch told the Sentinel, adding that the soldier didn't want his name to be revealed. "He said the same thing everybody else who comes in here says. He was short on funds."
Unlike some other medals, a Purple Heart is not engraved, which can make it difficult to track down the recipient.
Veterans have been particularly hard hit by the economy, with unemployment rate for this group hovering at 7.4 percent in November. The problem is particularly profound in Michigan, where the veteran unemployment rate is nearly 30 percent, higher than both the national average and the state's unemployment rate.
"When we got out of the Army, we had plenty of economic opportunities," said Vietnam war veteran Garrett Vanderduim, a resident of Holland, Mich. "But the soldiers that are fighting today, when they get out they -- especially here in Michigan -- they don't have the kind of opportunities that we had."
The reports have sparked a flood of sympathy from across the country. Both individuals and military organizations have reached out to VandenBosch offering to buy the medal back for the anonymous soldier.
But the pawnshop owner, who has been flooded with calls from around the country, said he never intended to sell the Purple Heart and is keeping it for the soldier, should he want it back.
"I have people that have walked in that have asked me 'Hey, how much did you pay for it, I'll pay for it so he can get it back,'" VandenBosch told local affiliate, ABC 57.
Vanderduim was one of those who was touched by the servicemember's plight.
"I know the importance of a Purple Heart. ... It's about as close to the end as you can get and still be here," the retired engineer told ABC News. "These guys, they've stared death in the eye, so to speak."
It's not unusual for Purple Heart medals to appear in flea markets and for sale online. But many of those belong to deceased servicemembers, and what makes this case unusual is that the medal was sold by the recipient himself.
Under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, it's against the law to sell a military decoration or medal. VandenBosch said he never intended to sell the medal to begin with and has taken it down from the lit glass case in which he showcased the Purple Heart earlier this week, adding that he should never have put it there in the first place.
Some are questioning the authenticity of the medal, which is awarded in a special presentation case with a lapel pin. It is relatively easy for servicemembers to buy a Purple Heart, says John Bircher, national spokesman for The Military Order of the Purple Heart. They are sold for about $30 at a military base, and even though they are only meant for recipients looking for a replacement, often the sellers don't ask for proof of eligibility.
Bircher, himself a Purple Heart recipient, is among those questioning the authenticity of the medal, which has garnered immense national publicity for VandenBosch. The Military Order of the Purple Heart was among the organizations that reached out to buy the medal for the anonymous seller.
The Purple Heart is "an emotional medal. It's not one that you win. It's one that you're entitled to if you are killed or wounded in action. It has a special connotation of patriotism that none of the others have," Bircher said. "It symbolizes that this individual gave his life or could've given his life in the defense of his country. It is a very special medal. I find it very unusual that someone would take his Purple Heart and pawn it."
A Total of 1.7 million Purple Heart medals have been given out since the award was created in 1932. As of June, more than 12,500 servicemembers serving in Afghanistan had received the medal.
ABC News' calls to VandenBosch were not returned.