Rep. Sean Duffy (right) and his staff helped veteran Ray Plenge and his family reclaim a World War II shell casing that Plenge had engraved with the names of his unit members.
He learned that Plenge, approaching his 90th birthday, didn’t have Internet access. Heiser handled the communications. In June 2011, they reached out to Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl (D) and Rep. Sean Duffy (R).
Enter Jenifer Nawrocki, a legislative assistant who handles veterans affairs for Duffy. She started working the phones, getting in touch with the U.S. embassy in Rome. Contact with Bendini had dropped off, and they needed another way to talk with the woman who had the shell casing.
For the next six months, Plenge’s story became a regular topic at staff meetings.
“Where are we on the case?” Duffy would ask.
As all of this went on, Plenge wasn’t getting any younger. But that didn’t stop him from applying to go on an honor flight — a program that flies elderly veterans to Washington, D.C.
Heiser had asked before whether Plenge wanted to do it. Plenge put it off until one day, when he called up Heiser and asked him for help on the application.
“I’ll go, but only if you go,” Plenge told Heiser.
The pair traveled to D.C. in September. They spent much of the day with Nawrocki, who brought them to see the World War II and Vietnam memorials, and they were seen off by Duffy, who promised his office was doing all it could to get the shell back to Plenge.
“I never dreamt I’d have a role in helping someone like Ray,” Duffy said. “He’s the embodiment of what Wisconsin is: nice, caring, affectionate.”
‘It Just Released Him’ In December, Duffy’s staff got word that the mayor of the town that the Italian woman lived in had persuaded her to return the shell.
An employee of the U.S. embassy drove to the town, about four hours north of Rome, to pick it up. The casing was sent back with another embassy employee heading to Dulles International Airport.
The office sent an email to Plenge’s family and Heiser, letting them know that the shell was en route to the United States.
Plenge had been hospitalized days before. Heiser and the family talked about whether they should tell Plenge.
“We decided that we should,” Heiser said. “We thought it might give him hope.”
The next day, Dec. 13, Plenge died.
Stout said her father had been in physical pain, but a weight had been lifted off his shoulders when he heard that the shell was coming back.
“He had achieved his goal,” she said. “Once he knew it was on its way, it just released him.”
‘An Emotional Day’ The task at hand for Duffy’s office quickly changed. The case arrived midweek and it needed to be in Wisconsin by Friday, the day of Plenge’s funeral.
Nawrocki volunteered to take the case to Wisconsin. She met with Stout, the rest of the Plenge family and Heiser on the day of the funeral.
“It was an emotional day,” Nawrocki said. “But it brought them so much peace. It made all the work worth it.”
For Stout, those last few days were traumatic. After her father’s death, her mother, Shirley, injured herself in a fall and the family wasn’t sure whether she would make it through Plenge’s funeral.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.