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Captain's mission: Reunite Purple Heart medals with recipients' families

NBC's Ron Allen has the story of how one man is making it his mission to recover Purple Hearts and return them to the families of the recipients.

On Christmas Day in 2009, Vermont National Guard Capt. Zachariah Fike received a gift from his mother, Joyce — a Purple Heart medal that she found in an old antique store.

But instead of displaying the medal in his home, Zac, who collects antiques, immediately took to the Internet. He began researching the name engraved in the brass finish — Corrado Piccoli — in hopes of returning the medal to its rightful owner.

“[For] a lot of these families, it’s closure,” Fike says of the Purple Heart medal. “It’s the only tangible thing that the families received after their loved one died. It’s something you can touch, that you can hold, that you can look at. And that’s all they have of him. It’s probably the most important thing in their lives.”

Using the Internet — along with documents found at a local high school and library, — Fike obtained information about the medal’s recipient, including his draft out of junior college and the mission liberating a French village during World War II, that would ultimately lead to his death.

The amateur investigator eventually found Piccoli’s surviving relatives — including his sister, Adeline Rockko of Watertown, N.Y., to whom he placed a call.

Through the research, Fike says, he got to know the family so well that upon making contact, he reminded Adeline of things she’d forgotten and was able to even share things about her brother she’d never known.

“I had the conversation with Zac and it was like opening a door in a closet that’s full of secrets — memories and everything just floats out,” Adeline said. “And the memories came back, they were very vivid.”

The connection has become the foundation for a close relationship between the two families, and set the groundwork for a first-ever Piccoli family reunion back in 2011, when dozens came together for a formal presentation of Corrado Piccoli’s Purple Heart.

“I felt throughout the process that [Piccoli] was communicating with me,” Fike said. I really felt like I was the messenger in the return, and in essence, it brought his family back together. So, I feel that I am a part of him and his family. And I do consider him a brother in arms again. I consider them a second family.”

A third-generation soldier, Fike is well aware of the sentimental significance of the Purple Heart medal. Since 1932, it has been presented to families of soldiers who lost their lives in combat, as well as to soldiers who have been wounded in action — as was the case with Zac, who was wounded in Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2010.

“I’m just glad to be here,” Fike said. “I’m glad I can be on a wall of honor in my mom’s home. And I would hope one day, if my medal was lost, that somebody would do the same thing that I do.”

Since the return of Piccoli’s medal, Fike has returned five more. He acquires them in a variety of places, including Craigslist and nursing homes — he even was given one from a landfill. He’s working on returning half a dozen others — and says he comes across more every week. Through word of mouth, Fike has become the go-to resource for tracking and returning lost medals.  

“People from that generation ... are passing by the day, he said. “Unfortunately [the medals] are misplaced during moves over the years. They’re sold by family members that don’t either understand or appreciate the value of them…so they end up in antique shops and things of that nature.”

In fact, Fike’s mother originally picked up the valuable artifact at the antique shop because she thought her son would appreciate the addition to his collection. Fike, quite the antique aficionado, has been collecting memorabilia for years — including photographs and record players.

Joyce knew her son would appreciate the medal — but had no idea the extent to which he’d go to return it.

“I thought he was going to keep it in his collection, so it surprised me that he has done this and it’s taken off the way it has,” she said. “I’m very proud of him for doing it. When I met these families and heard their stories, he’s done the right thing instead of keeping them in his collection.”

As for Fike, he is committed to continuing to his own mission of restoring these lost medals.

“I’ve always had that passion … even before, you know, I was wounded. I just grew up in a military family and I learned to appreciate military service and sacrifice. I think it adds to the allure of the story, absolutely. But I don’t think it makes me any more inclined to do what I do.” 

Those who need help returning medals can email PurpleHeartsReunited@hotmail.com or call 315-523-3609.