Vermont Army Major unites with fellow veterans to reunite Purple Hearts to military families across the nation
Imagine for a second that you’re seeing your brother, son, dad, or uncle off to war. That precious, fleeting goodbye is filled with tears, prayers, and the promise of returning home. You watch them walk down the driveway to catch the bus and just like that, they’re gone. Two weeks later, you get a knock on your door. You open it, your body tightens, and everything around you slows up. A man in uniform hands you a telegram saying that your loved one is never coming home. As your family and friends cope with the news, the telegram is later followed by a final piece of the person you’ll ever receive, a Purple Heart.
Could you imagine losing or misplacing that piece of a loved one and having it returned 50 years later? A Purple Heart is family history at its most significant, and the oldest military award still given to those who have served. Helping identify and locate the survivors of one who was awarded it, and then somehow parted from, a Purple Heart is a chance to reunite a family with a piece of a near or distant relative they may lovedor perhaps never have known. Something Mike has personal experience with.
“Neither my mother nor I ever knew my grandfather,” says Mike. “What we do know is that he was killed on 11 May 1945 while serving on the U.S.S. Evans (DD-552) during the Battle of Okinawa in WWII. When she presented me with his Purple Heart and told me his story, I was without words. Men like Zachariah Fike are making it possible to give other military families closure and peace through his Purple Hearts Reunited nonprofit as he works unfailingly to return these medals to their rightful owners.”
Zac, founder of Purple Hearts Reunited and active Army Major for the past 18 years, left war a changed man. Especially after his last tour to Afghanistan, where he was wounded and later awarded a Purple Heart for his service and sacrifice. Like many other veterans on the mend, Zac needed an outlet to help him cope with post-combat stress, and he developed an interest and immersed himself in the world of antiques. The first piece of his collection was a gift from his mother — a Purple Heart she had bought for $100.
“When I flipped the heart over and read the name ‘Pvt. Corrado Piccoli’ my first reaction was sadness,” says Zac. “Having recently been presented with my own Purple Heart, I was all too familiar with its significance. The precious medal in my hand represented a fellow soldier who gave his life for me, my family, and our country. Suddenly that sadness fled and excitement took over as I felt I had a new mission at that very moment. I had to find out everything about this veteran’s service and answer the mystery as to who his family was and why his medal was discovered in an antique shop. I feel that excitement each evening when I go into my basement to research the fallen heroes of history.” (See Zac at work in the video below.)
Knowing that there were more Purple Hearts to rescue, and certainly other veterans needing an outlet, Zac founded Purple Hearts Reunited in 2012. His nonprofit is currently the only one of its kind uniting Purple Hearts and their proper families, free of charge and with the help of other veterans, serving the cause of historical preservation and education. So far, this alliance has resulted in the successful return of more than 300 Purple Hearts to military families all across the country. Last year alone, the organization brought home 70 medals, with its volunteer veterans logging more than 28,000 miles and touching the lives of more than 70,000 people in 18 states.
Purple Hearts Reunited opens its Valor Guard to veterans from all branches of the military and special services, like Sgt. Greg Haak, who served eight years in the U.S. Army with two tours in Iraq. During his last deployment, he was wounded by an IED and the resulting infection cost him his leg. He has since retired from the military, gradually adjusting to civilian life with the help of Purple Hearts Reunited.
“Participating in these returns fills me with a sense of pride that I haven’t experienced since my time in the military, while allowing me to feel like I’m part of a new family,” says Greg.
“For me,” says Zac, “watching Greg stand in front of a family at a return, looking sharp in his uniform again, and projecting confidence in the mission he was performing, was one of the proudest monuments I’ve experienced since starting this organization. It has become more than returning a medal or honoring a family, it has transformed into a process that also helps heal my fellow veterans.”
Veterans across the country have been given a new purpose and drive to stay active and serve others in need. Even the Executive Director of Purple Hearts Reunited, Sarah Corry, the daughter of a veteran, has a personal connection to the organization.
“My father is a two-time Purple Heart recipient from his time in Vietnam. I’m one of the lucky ones in that I get to sit down with my kids and show them that tangible symbol of sacrifice their Grandpa made for our nation. Being able to give that moment back to another Mom or Dad isn’t work for me, it’s a gift and a privilege. Participating in return ceremonies has been life-changing for me.”
Zac’s family has served all the way back to the Revolutionary War, so he understands the emotional attachment people have towards these medals.
“They tell the story and give closure to so many people. I believe all medals should go home to their true owners or be preserved in a special place of honor. Medal returns have become more than just returning a medal. We’re providing a very valuable experience for each family that often leads to families reuniting, learning more about their family history, and in most cases, finding closure with their loss. I once had help returning a Purple Heart from a dog named Smuckers after she dug the medal up in Denver dirt! That was a memorable story for me.”
But there are so many more stories that still need to be told. In fact, Zac and his team have made a pretty amazing New Year’s resolution this year: to return at least 100 medals in 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. To keep that resolution, they will have to return one medal just about every three days!
“I guess you could say I enjoy the thrill of finding an item and learning more about it, in much the same way that Mike does. It’s our vow that through returning these Purple Hearts we’ll tell each veteran’s story, preserve their legacy, and solidify their contribution to history.”