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.

war notice telegram
Photo credit Zachariah Fike

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.”

mike wolfe grandfather
Mike’s Grandfather

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.”

purple hearts medals
Photo courtesy of Zachariah Fike

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.”

purple hearts framed
Framed Purple Heart Photo Courtesy of Zachariah Fike

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.”

If you’re a veteran looking to volunteerto donate, or help identify current Purple Hearts, visit PurpleHeartsReunited.org.

 

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44 Comments

44 thoughts on “Purple Hearts Reunited: Precious Metal”

  1. Tom Victor

    Hello Mike,

    My name is Tom Victor and I am from New Salem, PA located about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh here in Western Pennsylvania. I wanted to drop you a line to let you know that my family really enjoys watching you and Frank on American Pickers. Recently my mother called and told me she had just watched an episode where you disclosed that your grandfather served and was killed aboard the USS Evans DD552 during World War II. I wanted to let you know that my father, Martin W. Victor Jr., also served on the USS Evans. When I was growing up, dad never really talked about the war a lot or his time in the Navy. It was not until my daughter, Jessica, who had a school project that required her to interview and ask him to talk about his time in the Navy, that he really started to share his story. Up until that point, my father had no interest in sending for his metals and the Presidential Unit Citation he and the crew had earned. After Jessica interviewed him, he finally expressed interest in getting his metals and started to talk more about the war. He spoke of how the Evans was attacked by the Japanese on May 11, 1945 and how some of his buddies were part of the 32 good men killed that day. My father passed away on June 16, 2015 and I only wish I had known sooner that your grandfather served on the Evans so I could have ask my father if he had known your grandfather and if he may have been one of his buddies that bravely fought and died that day. Unfortunately I will never know so that I could have shared that with you. There is no doubt that men like my father and your grandfather helped make up The Greatest Generation that this country will never see again. I appreciate you taking time out to read my e-mail and wanted to let you know that if you are ever in my neck of the woods, you will always have an open invitation to visit my home and family. Thanks and take care.

  2. Martha

    My husband is a Purple Heart recipient and I am so proud of him. Even though he has some issues since the Vietnam War he still served the country as best as a 18 year old kid could. Never been out of the country and scared as hell. Thanks for bringing attention to these brave men and women.

    1. Richard Reszka

      Hello Martha , i know many Vietnam veterans have their issues about the war.On behalf of my family i want to say Thank You for doing what he and many comrades have done.They gave us the freedom we have today.Give a big Thank You to your husband , from the Reszka family.

    2. Walter Fred Parkhurst Jr

      It is hard to see kids your own age with wounds that they will carry for ever. From one Veteran to another Veteran Thank You. For God And County Fred

    3. Helena Hexspoor

      Thank him for his service. Although I am Canadian, I have the utmost respect for men like your husband and all the other that went into service in US and Canada.

  3. Betty R. Burke

    What a wonderful thing you are doing by returning these lost Purple Hearts. I can only imagine the excitement and the closure this must bring to a love one.
    Both of my husbands were veterans and are now in Heaven with Jesus. I took care of them at home and I have no regrets. They were both disabled Veterans. I have so many wonderful memories with them. I still live at home and I am awaiting for my time to come for God to call me home. My hobby is genealogy and I have been in it for about 40 years.
    Thank you so much for your wonderful dedicated hobby.
    Sincerely,
    Betty R. Burke

  4. Jan Leishman

    Mike, thank you for this story. Many times over the years, I have found flags, medals in different antique stores or swap meets this filled me with such sadness to observe the careless way of handling these objects without the honor they deserve.

    1. Rhonda Wiatrek

      My daddy passed away this last year on Palm Sunday. He was in the US Air force. He served 8 years during the early 1950’s. He was a clerical typist and handled many top-secret transmissions. I did not know this until after he had passed. He did not talk about his service and I don’t know if that was required of his service. But in his service paperwork I found that he received 2 medals of which I have never seen. So thank you Mike, Frank and Dani-D. for reuniting this Purple Heart to where it belongs.
      Sincerely,
      Rhonda Wiatrek, daughter of Noah Abshire, Jr. Born 1933- Now in Heaven 2016

  5. Steve Downs

    Mike … and Frank and Dani D. Hooked on your program … but more hooked about what you did to help reunite the Purple Heart with the veteran’s family. As a Vietnam Era Veteran (by God’s grace I didn’t have to serve in-country), I was deeply touched and thankful for your commitment and efforts. Thanks to for providing the link to PurpleHeartsReunited. I will be following up with them

    Be careful on those roads!!!

    Steve Downs
    Salem Oregon

  6. Linda Howell

    This is one of the most touching stories, I have ever seen on TV. I watch your show new ones and reruns every chance I get. This purple heart being returned to this son has been the best show you have done. I even seen it on channel 5 , of Atlanta Fox news. I had to have the tissue box, it was so inspiring. You are the best, Thank you, for the research and work you put into returning this purple heart. Great story and work you did. GOD BLESS, ALL OF YOU ! Linda Howell

  7. Elizabeth B

    Regarding Mike Wolfe’s story about Alvie L. Scott and reuniting Purple Hearts, thought Mike and family might be interested in seeing the findagrave.com memorial for Alvie on which someone has posted a photo of him and of his gravemarker. See memorial # 56063392 on findagrave website.

  8. Jenny Herl Smith

    is is a wonderful thing your doing. I’m sure it has brought peace to many families.My family lost a great man and a good soldier Dec.24 1944. He was in Maumandy at the Battle of the Bulge. His name was Orville R Herl. He and his fellow troopers were hold up in a hotel waiting for other troops to arrive.Somehow the corridance were wrong.They bombed the hotel where he was waiting for help. He died that day by friendly fire so they say. No remains were found. He had to be where the bomb hit. He was declared missing in action. Four years a letter came to his mother saying they were no longer pursuing his case. His mother died shortly after that. He Has his Purple Heart but I’ve also been told he had a Silver Star which has not been found.We always thought there was a White Cross in one of the military cementaries for him. It turns out there is no white cross for him. Our family got a gravestone in Oak Harbor Ohio to always remember him by but he’s not there. It tore his family apart. I recently stopped at the local Veterans Services. I gave them the information I had and they are looking into it.I’m looking for some direction as to go with this. Don’t know what to do next. Thank you for reading this. There’s still a big hole in our hearts.

    Jenny Herl Smith
    Great neice of Orville Herl.

    1. Jeff

      Hello . Respect and thanks for your great-uncle’s sacrifice. You will have better search results with “Malmedy” rather than “Maumandy”. Unfortunately, you will learn more about the events of December 1944 but not much more about Orville R Herl. Why ? As in France, the army hardly recognizes its mistakes, if we start to have answers on the WW1, for the WW2 and the following ones, it will have to wait for many years. As soon as we pronounce the word “Malmédy” to the American army, the discussion is closed. However, I have discovered many documents in French, if you wish, I can help you understand the circumstances of these tragic and confused days. Unfortunately, in the immediate future it will not bring a grave to your great-uncle, because to this day, the number of American soldiers dead in these bombings is still uncertain. Finally, I hope that by means of researches and discoveries, you will obtain the recognition of the American army and at least the erection of a monument. Thank you Mike for your investment and allow me to express myself here. (Sorry for my english, Iam French.) Best regards, Jeff.

  9. Cecelia Ann Wright

    My Father, Mr. Arthur L. Wright served in WWII and Korea. He often told me many times how he got hurt and was in the hospital for his injuries. But unfortunately, like many veterans like himself, his records got burned up. Can you look into whether or not he would of gotten a Purple Heart? I can be contacted at: 423-765-2330.

    Thank you, Ms. Wright
    Veteran

    1. Sarah Buckholtz Post Author

      Thank you for telling us about your father, Cecelia. Contact Zac at Purple Heart Reunited. We’re sure he can answer your question!

  10. Corporal James Bevard

    I Had Goosebumps reading Mike’s Story. My father, a WWII Veteran that Served in France and Germany at the very end of the war recently passed. He did not earn the Purple Heart but He Certainly Earned Our Life Long Respect and Gratitude. I served in the USMC during peacetime and had the Honor and Privilege to Full Fill 2, 6 month deployments to the Beautiful Island of Okinawa, Japan and Many Other Countries. I have a set of Postcards from 1981 that are Photographs of many areas of the Island for you Mike Wolfe. Whenever you folks are in Southeastern Michigan Please give me a call at (734) 787-2176. If you prefer I can gladly mail them to you so that you and Your Mother and whomever can see firsthand the great Beauty and Obvious Struggles your Grandfather Endured. All Beach’s are broken, very sharp Coral. There are Deadly Sea Snakes everywhere, Jellyfish, etc.

    Just Sayin. Thank You Person for Reuniting Families with their loved ones Purple Heart Medals. Truly and Honor Sir. God will Bless You Handsomely someday.

    Corporal B

    1. Sarah Buckholtz Post Author

      Thank you for telling us the story of your father, Corporal B! So nice of you to think about us. Zac and his team are the real heroes here. God Bless!

  11. Joseph Reichert

    Mike:

    My father in law was in WWII. He was a waist gunner on a B-17 ) I can provide id # if needed. He then spent 2+ years being transferred from Stalag to Stelag until they awoke one day hand found the Germans had left.

    I was too young to think about it then, but I am sure you don’t get shot down without injuries. Yet, I know of no Purple Heart of any other medal that he received.

    His name was Russell A. Meyer and he lived in Belleville, IL until he died in 2010. How can I help research this ?.

  12. Michael Staton

    So very proud to see PHRs mission described to the nation in only the way Mike Wolfe and American Pickers can do it!

    Also proud to say my dad served with CWT Rhesa Boor on board the USS Evans! My dad was mighty proud when he spoke of “his” ship and his fellow crewmembers.

    Never forget those that sacrificed in order to keep us free!

  13. Bonnie Cunningham

    My father served in WWII. He landed on Omaha Beach in the second wave.
    We were always told he was a medic and drove an ambulance in Europe. When I was going
    through old papers after he and my mother passed, I came upon his discharge papers which
    state he was on a retrieval team. I take that to mean he picked up wounded and deceased
    soldiers.
    The papers also state that he was awarded 2 Bronze Stars. We’ve never seen them and he never
    talked about them. Someone told me that perhaps he was told to send for them once he got
    home and never did.
    Does the Purple Hearts Reunited organization help families get medals other than Purple Hearts?
    Thanks for any help you may be able to give us. Even if only to point us to where we could inquire
    about them. I’ve tried asking friends in the VFW and American Legion with no success.
    His six grandsons would love to have them.
    Sincerely,
    Bonnie Cunningham

  14. Barbara Ford Zagorski

    what a wonderful thing you are doing-my father Robert J. Ford was awarded “The Purple Heart” in a field hosp. in Europe. He was with the 45th Signal Corps. and all records have been lost in the “fire” -at the Army Dept.= the family story is that my younger brother (probably about age 7 or 8) took the medal to school back in the 60’s for a school project -he states a teacher took it from him for safekeeping I suppose-anyway it was lost-and I know how I would feel if it was ever found and returned-my daddy is now gone from this world as most of these brave men are-it tugs at my heart to know that people still respect them and find value in returning these medals to the loved ones-I only wish I was one of the lucky ones—God Bless Barbara

  15. Robert Pike

    My wife’s Grandfather was born of German parents in the UK before 1900 and served the 4 years in the 1914/18 war in the English trenches he had medals to prove this in his original name these have been stolen and we cannot trace his war efforts because he changed his name before the 2 nd WW because of anti German feeling in the 1930 in the UK to protect his wife
    Now we only have a picture of him in his uniform so sadly we are unable to trace his service records

    I think the efforts that your veteran’s are making is brilliant to return medals to family’s
    I wish we had it in the UK

  16. Nancy elizondo

    You are doing so many GOOD things , as you go “picking” across the countryLove your show, and even watch the re-runs.How great that your JOB is doing what you LOVE! Nancy

  17. Eleanor Naill

    Someday someone may find my deceased husband’s Purple Heart. They may find it in a forest in Oregon, where he scattered his mothers ashes. It is in a field where wild strawberries grow, a place she loved. Why? because he said she had earned it for her heart bled for him as much as his body had. It is already home where he wanted it.

  18. Walter Fred Parkhurst Jr

    Being a Veteran of the Vietnam Era and working as a Medic in the Army Hospital on Okinawa this hit me hard. I never really thought about all of the wounded receiving The Purple Heart until now. In that eighteen months I saw hundreds of young men that were wounded. To think of them or their families not having their Purple Hearts really bothers me. This is a Wonderful Mission that I want to be a part of. My American Legion Post I know will help also. Thanks for Posting this.

    1. Walter Fred Parkhurst Jr

      I should add my Uncle Chester was the recipient of two Purple Hearts, he never really told me how he was wounded until I came back home from the Army. My Daddy was in the Battle of Okinawa and I had five Uncles who served in WWII.

  19. Chris Nebeker

    my grandfather still live and kicking is a Vietnam vet with a Purple Heart and while all my cousins are off texting other people I would rather sit with him and play cards with him while listening to his fishing stories or his war stories, I love going to the veteran clubs/bars/hospitals and just sitting with the Vietnam/WWII vets and listen to what stories of war or life they wish to tell. I say to myself, if I can learn about the past I can help make the future a better place for our children’s children.

  20. Jeanne Jessen

    I inherited my uncle’s Purple Heart from my grandmother after her passing. My uncle was a medical intern on the USS Arizona. Not having any family to pass it on to some day has always bothered me. After seeing the American Pickers episode about preserving Purple Hearts, I made the decision to donate my uncle’s medal and two important documents signed by President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox to his home town’s American Legion in New Prague, MN. Post Commander Paul Busch was more than pleased to accept the donations and is having them encased and framed and will add them to their Legion’s wall of honor. It is such a relief to know that the Purple Heart and certificates of honor will not be dismissed some day when I pass away. Thank you American Pickers for pointing me in the right direction.

  21. Barry Bell

    Having served in Combat, I can honestly say that the Purple Heart was the one medal I wanted to avoid at all cost. On the first day of the Gulf War’s Aerial Campaign, 3 of my 8 man Recon team were injured as a result of an A-10 airstrike on our position. It is always disturbing to see a Purple Heart separate from the awardee. I loved the episode showing your team getting it back to the family whose father it belonged to. Well done guys, well done.

  22. Jay Carron

    I know Mike and Frank love picking in the Northeast US because of all the history here. Relative to the Purple Heart medals awarded to our service members (or past members), I wanted to tell you about the National Purple Heart Hall of Fame in New Windsor, NY on Route 32 near the junction of Route 300. New Windsor is located just south of Newburgh, NY and about an hour north of New York City on the west side of the Hudson River in Orange County, NY. This is an invaluable resource and an amazing place where Purple Heart recipients are honored, and should you be in the area, this is a MUST SEE place to visit. Their web site link is: https://www.thepurpleheart.com

    This is an amazing place, and should be seen and supported by everyone. I know your support will be greatly appreciated.

    1. Jay Carron

      Correction, this is the National Purple Heart Hall of HONOR. Not the National Purple Heart hall of Fame as I incorrectly stated in my original post. Please note that within easy driving distance, is the United States Military Academy at West Point. Just south of the Main Gate at West Point on Route 9W is an armory museum which is also a must see.

  23. Shelley

    I love this entry. Every time I’m out looking for treasures, I always buy any medals and try to return them to their families. If I cant locate anyone, I donate to a local military museum.

    Proud Fort Campbell mom

  24. Billy moore

    I watched these items regarding purple hearts and found myself really moved. How compassionate to reunite them with family members. I don’t really get hooked on tv but find myself compelled to watch mike and frank. I was a miner a textile worker and an aircraft fitter …..subsequently a line manager on Airbus. I’m now about to take on a college janitor role till retirement and would give it up to be a scottish picker : ) Mike and Frank are my type of people !!!

    1. Billy moore

      I watched these items regarding purple hearts and found myself really moved. How compassionate to reunite them with family members. I don’t really get hooked on tv but find myself compelled to watch mike and frank. I was a miner a textile worker and an aircraft fitter …..subsequently a line manager on Airbus. I’m now about to take on a college janitor role till retirement and would give it up to be a scottish picker : ) Mike and Frank are my type of people !!!

  25. Jennifer Letvenow

    I have been a long time fan of American Pickers, all the way back to Season 1. I have always had a modest collection of random things ever since I was a kid. Still enjoy vintage things far more than anything new, I even dare to say by Antique Archaeology’s standards I have a “good eye”. My reason for writing is this. It is often stated you pick things and hope to see them somewhere they belong, what you have done for me, unbeknownst to you, was life-changing. I had watched the episode where Mike and Frank were most recently in Detroit and received Ron Hendrixson’s Purple Heart. It wasn’t until the episode was aired when Ron’s wife Cindy and son, Jesse were presented his medal that life as I had become accustomed to changed. I was close with Ron and Cindy when Jesse was just a young boy. Time and other things had kept us out of touch for some time, I had heard of Ron’s death through the local news in the county we lived in. This was hard for me because he was a great man who I had fond memories of. Cindy is a warm and kind person as well, she and I have not seen each other in about 12 years. I have tried to find her unsuccessfully, but when I had seen her last, I knew she had moved out of the Webberville, MI. home her & Ron had shared. When I saw her on American Pickers it refueled my hopes in finding her and I did the night that aired. I found her profile on Facebook and immediately sent her a friend request and we have been talking and making arrangements to get together. I have moved from South of the Mackinaw to the town of Marquette but hope to visit many old friends soon. In conclusion I want to express my appreciation for the work you do, it really does make a difference. You have brought me a lot of joy and I look forward to visiting with my friend Cindy Hendrixson. I would have been star-struck to meet Danielle. You are amazing people and please keep picking and sharing the wonderful stories. Thank you for your time. Sincerely, Jennifer Letvenow

  26. Maria

    GOD BLESS, amazing stories, heart felt, thx 4 all that u guys (men) do, Frank & Mike & everyone affiliated w/ reunited families w/PURPLE HEART is so humanitarian, GOD IS GOOD ALL X , MARIA FLETCHER, BORN & RAISED N (HISTORICAL) HARPERS FERRY, WVA

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