Author’s note: This story was originally printed by VTDigger on July 13, 2016.
GEORGIA — After a story broke that Vermonter Zachariah Fike, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, had reunited a Purple Heart with a veteran’s family, he received a call. It was from a man in Michigan who said his father had found a Purple Heart medal nearly 50 years ago. It sat in a candy jar and was played with by the man’s children and grandchildren.
The recipient of that Purple Heart was named Thomas Earle Hadley II. He was a pilot in the Korean War who died saving one of his fellow officers.
Fike tracked down his family. He found Hadley’s sister, Connie Bachman, in Massachusetts and returned the medal during a ceremony with her family in 2012. A few months later, Bachman’s daughter called Fike and said her mother was suffering from throat cancer and wanted to speak with him.
“You brought my brother back to life,” Fike recalled Bachman saying over the phone. “Now, I am no longer afraid to die.”
Two days later, Bachman died beside her family. She had told her family she felt her brother was there with her, Fike said Bachman’s daughter related.
Fike says it was then he knew he had found his passion: bringing Purple Heart soldiers to life again and honoring their lives and service by reuniting them with their medals.
“It is such a humbling experience to watch families be brought together as they are reunited with a Purple Heart. It is really bringing them together” that motivates him, he said.
Fike has just been named the Military Times Army soldier of the year. Over the past seven years, Fike has returned hundreds of medals to Purple Heart veterans or their families since he began his quest in 2012 through his nonprofit Purple Hearts Reunited.
Fike said his family has had a history of serving the country dating all the way back to the American Revolution. The military is in his blood, he said. Both of his parents were in the military. Fike served two tours in Afghanistan as an Army officer. After coming home from his first tour in 2009, he became a military collector.
“When a soldier comes home from war, they change,” he said. “They find something to keep busy.” Fike began going to antiques shops with a friend. He saw an old war helmet and didn’t think objects of such importance should be discarded in that way, he said.
For Christmas that year, Fike’s mother gave him a Purple Heart that she had purchased in an antiques store. Fike said that as soon as he opened it, he knew the medal did not belong to him.
“It was the one thing that should not be in a collection,” he said.
For the next three days, he searched for its owner, then he was deployed to Afghanistan. On Sept. 11, 2010, after Fike returned home as a wounded soldier, he picked up the search and found the family of his first Purple Heart soldier: Corrado Piccoli.
A Purple Heart medal. U.S. Marine Corps photo
Now, Fike and his team hope to return 150 medals over the next year, a rate of one every three days.
He has volunteers across the country who help him with rescuing medals, researching veterans and returning the medals to their owners.
Half the medals the nonprofit acquired are donated, and half are bought by rescuers for up to $300 each.
Purple Hearts Reunited first has the medals framed by Village Frame Shoppe in St. Albans.
The medal then takes a journey home to be ceremonially returned, Fike said. The ceremony includes a history of the Purple Heart and anecdotes from the family of the veteran the medal honored.
“It really brings them alive again,” he said.
Bringing Purple Hearts home is a lifestyle for Fike, he said. As CEO, he spends almost all his free time working on the nonprofit, he said. Fike works on active duty as a captain in the Vermont National Guard from 9 to 5, he said, and as the father of two children until they go to sleep.
Fike said that when his children go to bed, he begins his third life: reuniting Purple Hearts. In addition to being CEO, he has taken part in ceremonies around the country. One of Fike’s goals is to reunite the 100 World World I Purple Hearts the organization has with their families by April 6, 2017, the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into that war.
Fike said he sometimes drives eight or nine hours on the weekends and sleeps in his car to save money for the nonprofit.
He said the group’s greatest challenge is funding. To return one medal from start to finish costs around $1,500. Last year, the group spent $50,000 just rescuing these medals. That was not including additional costs to reunite the medals with their families, he said.
“We need help,” he said.
The honor from Military Times is not the first time that Fike’s work has been featured nationally.
It has been on various National Public Radio programs, including the StoryCorps podcast in 2012 and WBUR’s show “Here and Now” in 2013.
In May, The Associated Press released a story on Purple Hearts Reunited.