WALLINGFORD — Master Sgt. Heather Awner, an active duty service member, filed a lawsuit against Oakdale Self Storage after she found out her Wallingford unit, which contained many personal items including her Purple Heart award, was cleared without her knowledge.
Awner, who now resides in El Paso, Texas, received the Purple Heart after her finger was severed when her vehicle struck a land mine in Iraq, according to the lawsuit. The Purple Heart is an honor for service members who were injured while serving their country.
She is suing Oakdale Self Storage, a storage company that has locations in Wallingford and Shelton, and employees Kevin Oliwa and Chris Oliwa. The lawsuit claims the Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act was violated, among other counts.
A message left for Kevin Oliwa was not returned, along with a message at both Oakdale Self Storage locations. Chris Oliwa could not be reached for comment.
Awner, a Lyman Hall High School alumna, decided to store personal belongings in a unit at Oakdale’s Wallingford location, items that “she had accumulated through her childhood and up until the time she received the Purple Heart,” according to the complaint. This was due to the nature of her service as an active duty member of the United States Army, which meant she would be required to relocate frequently.
In late 2021, Oakdale was not able to use the debit card that Awner had on file to process the payment for her unit, according to the complaint. Oakdale, according to the complaint, claimed to have mailed a notice of this to the plaintiff at a previous address along with calling Awner at the same phone number she provided.
However, Awner contacted her phone carrier and according to her call logs, she received no phone calls from Oakdale. Her mother was a backup on her account with Oakdale due to Awner being an active service member, asking Oakdale to contact her in the event of any problems with her unit.
After not being able to charge the debit card, Chris Oliwa, at the “apparent direction of Kevin Oliwa,” according to the complaint, removed Awner’s belongings from the unit and burned or disposed of these items.
Awner became aware of what happened when a veteran contacted her after finding Awner’s Purple Heart at a pawn shop in Shelton after Chris Oliwa pawned it to the store, according to the lawsuit. Awner, after calling Oakdale, was told her possessions were destroyed.
Among these possessions were school records and awards, books from her childhood, her high school diploma, cap and gown from Lyman Hall High School, the bloodstained uniform and body armor she was wearing when she was injured, a commemorative plaque from former Gov. M. Jodi Rell, proclaiming a day as “Heather Awner Day” in recognition of her service, and more, according to the complaint.
“The loss of her personal possessions caused the plaintiff financial loss, as well as significant emotional distress as a result of the loss of priceless possessions which were essentially a representation of her childhood, formative years and early years in service of her country,” the complaint reads.
Attorney Garrett Denniston of Lynch Traub, Keefe & Errante, P.C. represents Awner.
“She’s looking for accountability and responsibility for what was done to her,” Denniston said.
Denniston said the next technical step in the suit process is for the defendants to reply to the complaint. The defense attorney, Frank G. Usseglio of Kenny, O’Keefe & Usseglio, P.C, asked to extend the due date of responding to the complaint another 30 days to Jan. 13, 2023.
“The requested extension is required in order to allow counsel time for investigation and review necessary to properly plead to the complaint,” according to the Motion for Extension of Time to Plead.
A representative at Usseglio’s office declined to comment on the suit.
Awner told the Record-Journal that she decided to file the suit to help prevent what happened to her from happening to others. She said she knows a lot of soldiers that have storage units.
“Humans have got to be more compassionate,” Awner said. “There is just a lack of compassion.”