U.S. Army private Corrado Piccoli was killed in France in the summer of 1944. This is, in most ways, a very old story – 69 years old, to be precise. Moreover, Piccoli was only one of the tens of thousands of Americans killed in battle that season. Posthumously, he was awarded the Purple Heart.
And yet his story is newsworthy now. Why? Because of that medal – and because of the efforts of Georgia, Vermont’s Zachariah Fike, a captain in the Vermont Army National Guard. Piccoli’s Purple Heart was the first of 60 that Fike has rescued from pawnshops, antique stores, and online auctions and returned to the recipients’ families. He is in the process of finding the rightful owners of 180 more.
“People sometimes think it’s a scam and I want money when I first track down a family,” Fike told me over coffee at Muddy Waters on Main Street in Burlington, Vermont. “But it’s the right thing to do. I consider myself a compatriot. As Americans, we owe these people so much.” To find Piccoli’s family demanded serious detective work: A trip to Watertown, New York. and the high school there. Unearthing a 1941 high school yearbook. Finding the soldier’s grave in the cemetery. An Internet search for family members. Finally he was able to return Piccoli’s medal to Adeline Rockko, now 86 years old, and today the medal is displayed at the Italian American Civic Association in Watertown, New York.
Fike, 32, is a Purple Heart recipient himself. He’s a self-described army brat, born in Germany to a pair of Army drill sergeants. (His mother, he says, was among the first female drill sergeants.) In the small hours of the morning on September 11, 2010, he was wounded in a Katyusha rocket attack at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
Without exception, the families have been profoundly grateful to have the lost medals returned. Fike shared with me an example of how these precious mementoes are lost – and found:
“A married couple in Pennsylvania is exercising on their community track, and as the husband bends down to tie his shoe, he sees a Purple Heart in the snow. The owner had given the medal to his granddaughter, before dying in 2009. The granddaughter carried it with her in her pocketbook. But then her car is broken into and her purse is stolen. When the thieves were emptying the purse, they threw the medal away.”
Whenever Fike comes across a Purple Heart on ebay or in a pawnshop, he buys it with his own money. Before returning it to the family – often in a ceremony with the family and a local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart – he pays to have it mounted and framed. He covers his own travel to wherever the family lives: “We try to honor and symbolize who the soldier was – to celebrate the sacrifice and what he meant to his country.”
To fund his efforts, he has now started a non-profit organization called “Purple Hearts Reunited.”
“I knew this was my calling as soon as I got started,” he said. “It’s my mission in life. I’m giving these families a ceremony that is meaningful and joyful, and they will always have that memory.”
And, of course, they will also have the medal.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day – a day in which we remember our veterans who have died. It’s a tradition that dates back, at the very least, to 1868. Thanks to Fike, now soldiers such as Corrado Piccoli are not merely remembered: Their legacies have been linked with their sacrifice. The medals have come home.
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To learn more about Fike’s project to return Purple Hearts to their owners or families, visitwww.purpleheartsreunited.org .
The column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on May 26, 2013.
Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” arrives in six weeks.