In 1782, Gen. George Washington created the precursor of what is now known throughout the world as the Purple Heart. How fitting that a resident on one of Washington's Five Farms should lend his medal for the photography of the first-ever commemorative postage stamp.
"I was very flattered," said James Loftus Fowler, retired U.S. Marine colonel, who lives in Collingwood on the Potomac. He earned not one but two Purple Hearts during the Vietnam War — once when his bunker took a direct hit and again when he was shot and spent nine months in a Naval hospital.
It was a circuitous route that led to Fowler. A few months ago, he received a call from Sidney Brown, the daughter of a classmate of his from Dartmouth. Brown works for PhotoAssist, a firm that helps companies locate photographers and props. She was tasked with helping the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) find a photographer for the creation of a new stamp commemorating the Purple Heart. They had worked with Ira Wexler before, so they asked him if he would be interested. He photographed the Teddy Bear stamp for the Celebrate the Century series a while back and said that he would be willing to do the photograph.
Brown then had another dilemma. Knowing that Fowler had served in the military, she called him and asked, 'Where can I get a medal?' Fowler offered to lend one of his and thus became the featured Purple Heart winner.
ALL OF THESE EFFORTS culminated in a grand stamp unveiling ceremony last week at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. Neither Wexler or Fowler had any idea how grand a ceremony it would be.
More than 500 people attended the ceremony, presided over by the postmaster general of the United States. Also in attendance were members of Congress, the joint chiefs of staff and William A. Wroolie, national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
"It was a magnificent ceremony," said Fowler, who was one of many Purple Heart recipients in attendance.
"I had no idea it would be such an emotional day," said Wexler. "The audience was filled with Purple Heart recipients. When the postmaster general acknowledged Ira Wexler, World War II veterans started shaking my hand."
Later, Wexler said that people in the crowd were asking him to sign their first-day covers. Several guests also asked to be photographed with him, including the postmaster general.
Wexler said that the filming of the medal had its own challenges. Because of all the bevels and ridges, Wexler wanted to get a really good photo, but since it was so small, he had to use medium-format film and a borrowed lens that was a foot and a half long.
Fowler retired from the U.S. Marines in 1982 and is now the director of security for Unilever North America.