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May 29, 2017

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Veteran's Purple Hearts mission to find rightful owners began with a gift

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 US$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.

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