They turn up at flea markets, antique shops, and more surprising places—Purple Hearts and other medals presented to combat veterans, to the wounded, and the fallen.
Zachariah Fike, 36, wants to make sure the medals get back to where they belong: with the families of the men who received them in World War II and other conflicts.
Since 2009, Fike, a major in the Vermont Army National Guard, has been collecting Purple Hearts and other lost or stolen medals and returning them—at no cost—to the families of the original recipients. In 2012, Fike started the nonprofit Purple Hearts Reunited (www.purpleheartsreunited.org) and, for his efforts, was named the 2016 Army Times Soldier of the Year.
Fike knows Purple Hearts—he received one after being wounded in a rocket attack in Afghanistan on September 11, 2010—but his effort to return the medals started earlier. In 2009, his mother bought a Purple Heart for $100 in an antique shop and gave it to him as a present for Christmas.
But that didn’t feel right to Fike; someone else had been awarded that Purple Heart. The back inscription read, “Private Corrado A.G. Piccoli.” After discovering that the Italian-born 20-year-old had been killed in northeastern France on October 7, 1944, Fike decided to track down Piccoli’s descendants. Fike’s deployment to Afghanistan interrupted his search, but he resumed the project upon his return. He drove to Piccoli’s old high school in Watertown, New York, and saw the fallen man’s 1942 yearbook photo. Shortly after, he tracked down Piccoli’s sister, Adeline Rockko-Piccoli, 87, in New Jersey.
At first, Adeline was skeptical of Fike’s claim, as she hadn’t realized her brother’s Purple Heart had gone missing, but she decided to drive 400 miles to see him. They arranged for Fike to return the Purple Heart—framed along with other military honors—to the Piccolis at a reunion of 40 family members.
Fike realized he was onto something: there were lots of stray medals out there and he wanted to help get them home. After news outlets picked up the Piccoli story, people from all over the country started reaching out to him. “We haven’t looked back,” he said.
Since then, Purple Hearts Reunited has returned 300 Purple Hearts and other medals to their rightful owners. Fike and his team of volunteers collect the medals—sometimes buying them from shops and collectors—research the stories behind them, frame the decorations, and locate and present them to the recipients’ families.
After working all day at the Vermont National Guard, Fike puts his young children to bed and labors into the early morning, collecting information and searching for families. He recently hired a full-time director for the nonprofit, which helped ease the workload.
When the family of Private Joseph Martin Jordan—killed on D-Day as one of the “Band of Brothers” in Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division—reached out to Purple Hearts Reunited, Fike tracked down Jordan’s Purple Heart and returned it to the family. There is a steady stream of work, and the medals turn up in unexpected places, in unexpected ways—a repairman found one in a washing machine; a dog named Smuckers dug up a Korean War Purple Heart in a Denver backyard.
Not all are thrilled by Fike’s efforts, and militaria collectors have been a constant source of antagonism. Posthumously awarded Purple Hearts typically fetch $300-$500 and can be worth thousands of dollars if related to a major historical event, such as the Battle of the Bulge. Fike and his team are rapidly taking those medals off the market, cutting into collectors’ incomes. Representative Paul Cook (R-CA) was impressed by Fike’s work and has introduced legislation—the Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act—prohibiting sale of the medals.
Fike doubts his work will ever be completed: 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been issued, and thousands have gone astray. “We’re just scratching the surface,” he says. But he’ll keep trying.