A Soldier’s Noble Quest to Return a War Medal to its Rightful Owner

This is the story of how a young soldier’s passion for collecting antiques led to a quest to reunite lost war medals with their owners or the remaining families of the original recipients.

The story began in 2006 when Major Zachariah Fike returned from a posting in Iraq. He was looking for a new hobby to help him relax and forget about the stress and memories of the fighting.

As Zac had always had an interest in antiques, he began collecting and dealing in a variety of different kinds including from time to time military memorabilia such as medals and helmets, etc.

A few years after he started, his mother bought him a special Christmas present that would take his interest in military antiques to a new level. Zac’s mom gave him an old Purple Heart medal she purchased from an antique store, still perfectly preserved in its presentation case.

The Purple Heart

The Modern Purple Heart

The original Purple Heart was a heart shaped badge of merit made of purple fabric which was established by George Washington in 1782. The idea was revived in the 20th century, and the first modern Purple Heart was awarded in 1932. It has retained the heart shape but is now made of metal and has the image of George Washington engraved on it. It is awarded to soldiers who are wounded or killed in battle.

Although touched by the kindness of the gift Zac felt he could not keep it. The medal belonged to the soldier who had shed blood or maybe lost his life to earn it. Zac began to wonder if there was any way the medal could be returned to the soldier or his family.

The Quest Begins

The medal was engraved with the soldier’s name, and the box also contained the soldier’s identity tag. The medal had been awarded to Private Corrado Piccoli. After some research, Zac uncovered a little more about him.

Private Piccoli had been killed in France in 1944 just a year after he had joined up. He also discovered Piccoli’s home address at the time he enlisted and a little about his family which included six brothers and sisters. Zac guessed that some of the Piccoli family might still be alive and thought what a good thing it would be if they could be reunited with this reminder of the brother they had lost so many years before.

Another Purple Heart

Before Zac could investigate any further, he had to return to duty. This time he was himself wounded and was awarded his own Purple Heart.  Returning home to recover from his injuries he picked up his quest again. Having received his own medal, he had a greater understanding of the meaning of the award. He was even more determined to pass the award on to the family of the man who had earned it.

Zac drove to Piccoli’s hometown and visited the school where he had been a student. While speaking to local people in the town he met someone who told him that Piccoli’s sister still lived there and gave him her address.

The Medal Comes home

Zac thought it would now be a simple matter of handing over the medal. However, it was not that easy.

Piccoli’s sisters were taken aback by Zac’s offer of the medal. Surprise quickly turned to suspicion, and it took some effort on his part to convince them that he had not stolen the medal and was not some con man trying to get money out of them.

After this difficult start, he had a positive and emotional meeting with the sisters who were delighted to accept the medal. The Purple Heart had been sent to Piccoli’s mother shortly after his death. Over time it had been passed around various members of the family, got lost and somehow found its way to the antique store where Zac’s mother had found it.

Purple Hearts Reunited

By Hannah Doyle – CC BY-SA 4.0
By Hannah Doyle – CC BY-SA 4.0

When the story made the local news, it prompted many people to get in touch. Like Zac, they had also come across old medals and were keen to see them back in the right hands.

Zac was more than happy to help and to make it possible he set up a non-profit foundation called Purple Hearts Reunited. They support all the detective work needed to get the medals back to their owner or their families. The organization relies on the generosity of members of the public and its sponsors to support their work. Unlike some medals such as the Medal of Honor, there is no national database listing the recipients of the Purple Heart making it harder to track down the rightful owners.

Since July 2012 Purple Hearts Reunited has been helping to bring a sense of peace to families as well as returning lost medals to surviving veterans of several wars. The organization helps to return all types of war medals and other personal military items that may hold a special meaning for a veteran or their family. Also, the organization provides scholarships to help families of Purple Heart recipients.

The work continues

Major Zachariah Fike presents a check from the Scholarship Fund. Hannah Doyle – CC BY-SA 4.0
Major Zachariah Fike presents a check from the Scholarship Fund. Hannah Doyle – CC BY-SA 4.0

Zachariah is very involved with the work of the organization although he serves in the US army in the Vermont National Guard. People can list their lost medal on the website in the hope that someone out there has found it. It gives instructions on what to do if you find a medal, starting with checking the lost medal database and it provides an address where people can send the medals they find.

When a medal matches one on the lost medals database, usually the process is very quick and simple. More complicated cases can take years to conclude. Sadly even the team at Purple Hearts Reunited sometimes have to give up and accept that the owner cannot be located. If that is the case, then the medal is donated to a place that honors veterans such as war museums or memorials.

The organization’s website is https://purpleheartsreunited.org/   where more information can be found about their work and history.

Elly Farelly

Eileen Farrelly is a freelance writer based in Scotland. She studied philosophy and adult education at The University of Glasgow and worked in teaching and administration before becoming a full time writer. Her main areas of interest are history, education and the arts and always looks for the human interest angle of the story. She also writes poetry and has been published in anthologies and journals in the UK and USA.