DENVER -- His labor of love began with an effort to find the owner of a Purple Heart that was given to him as a gift.
Since then, Zachariah Fike, a captain in the Vermont National Guard, has returned more than 100 Purple Heart medals, sometimes lost, sometimes stolen, to relatives of the original recipients. Most of those recipients were awarded the medal after being killed in combat.
"It’s my mission. It’s my ministry if you will," Fike said this week at a Denver national convention of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an organization of veterans wounded in combat. "I can’t keep up."
Fike, who created Purple Hearts Reunited in 2012, has accumulated another 300 Purple Heart medals to deliver to families.
The service members’ medals and other property often are lost in estate sales, found in basements and attics, or sometimes in pawn shops, antique stores or thrift stores if they are stolen. The medals keep coming at a rate of three to five per week.
Fike, 33, of Georgia, Vermont, is a 16-year veteran and an antiques collector. He was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, to parents who both served as U.S. Army drill sergeants.
His mother gave him a Purple Heart medal as a Christmas present in 2009.
The medal had been awarded to Corrado Piccoli, a private killed on Oct. 7, 1944, in Fremifontaine, France, near the border with Germany.
"I knew that medal didn’t belong to me. And it sent me on a journey to find the family," Fike said.
Before he could do so, Fike was deployed to Afghanistan as a logistics officer. He was wounded in a rocket attack at Bagram Airfield in September 2010 and was awarded his own Purple Heart.
Back home, he found Piccoli’s family -- and learned how the medal ended up in an antique shop where his mother bought it for $100.
Piccoli’s nephew had been given the medal as a family heirloom and placed it in a storage locker when he joined the Navy. He shipped out in the mid-1970s and, while on tour, his property in the locker was auctioned off when he couldn’t pay the rental fee.
"I saw something very special happen around that return," Fike said. "After the serviceman’s death, the family kind of went on in their own direction. They all separated. Because of this medal return I saw a family come together again for the first time. And they had their first ever family reunion 65 years later." Piccoli had six surviving siblings.
Fike returns Purple Hearts in a framed shadow box with supporting documentation, but he also works with the Defense Department to obtain all medals earned by the service member. They’re presented in person in a ceremony that brings together friends and family.
He also returns identification dog tags, canteens, pocket watches, cavalry swords and anything else that bears a service member’s name.
Fike shrugs off suggestions that he simply mail the medals instead of arranging ceremonies for their return. Before Vietnam, the Purple Heart was sent via registered mail, Fike said. He said he wants to avoid the impersonal nature of that discarded procedure.
He cites the case of Air Force 2nd Lt. Thomas E. Hadley II, who was killed in action in Korea. Hadley’s surviving sister, Connie Bachman of Lexington, Massachusetts, dressed up for a ceremony in which friends and family gathered to honor her brother’s service.
She died a month later.
"They saw her shine one last time instead of a funeral one month later," Fike said. "To me, that meant something and I knew what we were doing was the right thing. And every story is like that."
During the convention, the Military Order of the Purple Heart plans to absorb Fike’s foundation, making it part of its mission to lobby on behalf of veterans’ health care and other benefits. Fike will continue his involvement.