Our digital and social media producer Rachel Rohr is back from a month-long trip cross-country, talking with young Americans.
In 2009, Zachariah Fike’s mother gave him a Purple Heart that she found in an antique store as a Christmas present.
Looking on the back, Fike — an Army National Guard captain — discovered it had been awarded to Corrado A.G. Piccoli.
Fike became determined to find out who Piccoli was and why the medal ended up in the antique store. Fike eventually was able to return the medal to Piccoli’s family, including his sister, Adeline Rockko.
In 2012, he founded the organization Purple Hearts Reunited to give other medals back to those who have had them lost or stolen.
The organization reports that it has been able to locate return over 60 medals so far.
Zachariah Fike on what it’s like to uncover the stories of veterans
“For me it’s personal. I get to know the veterans as I do the research, and they become a part of me. They become a part of my family; Adeline is a second mom to me. And those people have impacted my life, and will impact my life forever. It’s very hard to say goodbye to the families. It’s very hard to say goodbye to the memories. I keep a photo of each veteran in my home to remind me of their sacrifice, and it really is the driving force to keep me moving forward and to continue in doing this mission and God’s work.”
Adeline Rockko on what it was like to have her brother’s medal returned to her
“It’s the end of the story actually. We found out a lot about Zach and his family, and Zach was able to tell us all the end of the story – how my brother died, what wounds he received, where he was buried, where the battle was, how long the battle was and all these unanswered questions that had been in our minds all these years. He did a very fine job and he really helped us out a lot. More than he will ever know.”
Zachariah Fike on the importance of the Purple Hearts
“You’ve got to think or put it in perspective – a mother or father would get that telegram during World War II telling them or informing them that their only child, in some cases, were no longer with us. And that’s a very emotional event. And soon after, 30 to 60 days, they would receive a registered piece of mail with this Purple Heart. A lot of the effects were not returned to the family, so this was all they had – it became that tangible item that they could touch and feel and display in their homes. And it’s the only memory of their loved ones. To be removed from that and then reunited 60 years later, really brings closure to their lives.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Zachariah Fike is an active-duty captain with the Vermont Army National Guard and a veteran of war. He took some shrapnel in the leg in Afghanistan. But he spends every spare moment of his personal time returning Purple Hearts to their rightful owners. You may have heard Zack on StoryCorps. In 2009, his mom gave him a Purple Heart she found at an antique store for a Christmas present.
YOUNG: On the back, the name Corrado A.G. Piccoli, killed at war in 1944. Eventually, Zack tracked down Piccoli's sisters and gained a new family. He calls Piccoli's sister, Adeline Rockko, his second mom. But Zack also began a new calling. His nonprofit is called Purple Hearts Reunited. And Captain Fike joins us on the line from New York. Zack, how many Purple Hearts have you returned just this weekend?
CAPTAIN ZACHARIAH FIKE: Over the last four days, I've been returning Purple Hearts. I've returned three in the past three days, and tomorrow will be my last in Washington, D.C.
YOUNG: Where are the other three?
FIKE: I had one in Hazelton, Pennsylvania. Then I shot South to Lancaster. And then I did a return in Bowie, Maryland yesterday.
YOUNG: How many have you returned so far?
FIKE: This will be, on Tuesday, my 64th Purple Heart return. We're receiving roughly three medals a week, and I have approximately 200 medals at my home in Vermont that need a home.
YOUNG: How is this happening? These are among the country's highest honors, given only to the seriously wounded or those killed at war. How are they getting lost? And where are they showing up?
FIKE: It's a 50-50 mix of legitimate losses and some that are stolen. The veteran yesterday in Maryland, he contacted me. He had read in AARP. Two years ago, someone broke into his home and stole his Purple Heart out of his sock drawer. So he sent me a very sweet message and just basically asked me, hey, Zack, you know, I'm not worried about the jewelry that was stolen. You know, that medal meant the world to me. And I want to make this right and get something back for my family so that he could pass that down.
He's 87 years old, a veteran of World War II and Korea. So we did get that medal. He also didn't know he was entitled to a Bronze Star. We get these professionally framed for the families. And I showed up on his doorstep. We sat down at his dining room table over a cup of coffee. He's shared, for a good hour, his stories of his war journeys. And when I brought those medals out, I have to say I was in tears myself to see his reaction. We were both in tears. And he thanked me from the bottom of his heart for bringing those medals back to him.
YOUNG: Well - and they've - medals have been found in abandoned homes. You tell us people used to hide things in walls. So they're found later in walls, in old furniture, washing machines. I'm reading about one, a woman in Ashton, Virginia had one for 30 years. She can't remember how or where she got it. And you were able to give that one posthumously to the family of Gordon Yates who was 17 when he enlisted in World War II, 19 when he was beheaded by the Japanese.
You not only have to track down the family members, but you tell them, in many cases for the first time, the story of what happened to their loved ones. What's that like to take on all of those stories?
FIKE: For me, it's personal. I get to know the veterans as I do the research, and they become a part of me. They become a part of my family. Adeline is a second mom to me. And those people have, you know, impacted my life and will impact my life forever. It's very hard to say goodbye to the families. It's very hard to say goodbye to the memories. I keep a photo of each veteran in my home to remind me of their sacrifice. And it's really the driving force that keep me moving forward and continuing doing this mission and God's work.
YOUNG: Well, some of them you don't have to say goodbye to. We have Adeline Rockko on the line. And as you said, she's become family to you. And, Adeline, as we said, this all started - this project started when Zack returned your brother's medal. We heard you speak of this on StoryCorps. But what was that like? We heard, initially, you were kind of gruff with him, like, how did you get my brother's medal? But now he's like a second son. What's that like to have that medal?
ADELINE ROCKKO: Well, it's - the end of the story actually, we found out a lot about Zack and his family, and Zack was able to tell us all the - at end of the story, how my brother died, what wounds he received, where he was buried, where the battle was, how long the battle was and all of these unanswered questions that had been in our minds all of these years. He did a very fine job, and he really helped us out an awful lot, more than he'll ever know.
YOUNG: Well - and what's happened since then? We understand, I mean, some are very private small ceremonies. Yours in some ways brought your family together.
ROCKKO: Yes. As a result of this, we had time to put the first family gathering together. Everybody came and everybody was very acceptable when they met Zach and his mother. And we just - that night we just decided to adopt him. And he's been very active in my life.
YOUNG: Zach, you know, in some ways, you become for some of these families, I'm imagining, those young men that left so many years ago.
FIKE: Yeah. You got to think or put it into perspective, a mother or father would get that telegram during World War II, you know, telling them or informing them that their only child, in some cases, were no longer with us. And that's a very emotional event. And soon after, 30 to 60 days, they would receive a registered piece of mail with this Purple Heart. A lot of the effects were not returned to families so this is all they had.
It became that tangible item that they could touch and feel and display in their homes, and it was the only memory of their loved ones. To be removed from that and then reunited 60 years later really brings closure to their lives.
YOUNG: Well, Zach, how are you affording this? Because we know you've been traveling. In many cases some people want their medal returned privately through the mail. But most of the time you travel. Do I understand you sleep in your car on occasion?
FIKE: I actually posted a picture of me sleeping in my car the other day.
FIKE: But I try to save money as much as possible.
YOUNG: Well - and you have a family just had a new baby. You have your full-time work with the Guard. This you do late at night, do the research late at night. So you're depending on the kindness of others, not just to support your cause but also to give up the medals that aren't theirs.
FIKE: Yeah. Right now the families are the ones who are supporting me. The last three returns I have conducted, they have given me a check as I walked out the door. You know, each family is carrying this love to the next family, and that's really powerful. I have, like I said, 200 medals currently. I can do 30 returns tomorrow. I just can't afford to do it.
YOUNG: Well, we'll leave it at that and put more information at hereandnow.org. That's Captain Zachariah Fike, an active-duty Army captain with the Vermont Army National Guard. We also spoke with Adeline Rockko, the sister of a Purple Heart recipient who got the Purple Heart back from Zach. Thank you both so much.
ROCKKO: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: And again, he's done about 64 returns. It costs about 1,000 per return. You do the math and then you go to hereandnow.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.