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East County Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020 11 months ago

Lakewood Ranch event delivers lost medals of valor back to families

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Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Military veterans often try different methods to ease the strain of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

For career soldier Zachariah Fike, it was searching for antiques. Currently an active duty Army infantry major with more than 22 years of service with the Vermont National Guard, Fike started his antique hunting after he returned from his deployment in Iraq in 2006.

He found a certain serenity after finding an antique, and then researching its history.

It was something his mother, Joyce Fike, recognized. So when she found a Purple Heart in a Watertown, N.Y. antique store in 2009, she paid $100 for it and wrapped it as a Christmas present for her son. Little did she know the chain of events she had started.

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

"Of all the things I collected, this medal resonated with me," Fike said. "I wanted to know everything about that veteran. I found his name (Corrado Piccoli) on a long honor roll of names, and it sent me on a journey."

Fike found the soldier was killed in France on Oct. 7, 1944 during World War II. The Purple Heart was awarded posthumously. He found the mother of the soldier died of a heart attack shortly after receiving news of her son's death.

He eventually found the soldier's family still lived in Watertown, and he returned the medal to them as they congregated for a family reunion. One of the family members had kept the medal in a storage unit and eventually it was lost.

Fike thought it would be heartbreaking for a family or a soldier to lose a service medal. He wanted to start a nonprofit to find medals, and then return them. Only his deployment to Afghanistan in 2010-2011 got in the way.

When he returned, he had his own Purple Heart (to go with two Bronze Stars), received after he was injured in a rocket blast. He was more determined than ever to get a nonprofit rolling.

So he formed Purple Hearts Reunited and convinced his wife, Jessica Fike, to be the administrative director.

"We are a grass roots operation," he said. "Very small, with only two full-time employees (Sarah Corry is the executive director). We've been doing this for a decade now and we have returned more than 800 medals of valor."

On Feb. 27, Purple Hearts Reunited will be at Gold Coast Eagle Distributing in Lakewood Ranch for a special event called "A Night of Patriotism." The event will celebrate the return of three medals of valor to the families of three veterans. All three were killed in action, two in World War II and one in World War I. Their stories will be told during the ceremony. The night will conclude with a silent auction and raffle to raise funds to continue the nonprofit's mission.

One of the soldiers, Lt. Silas Beck, was killed March 28, 1945 while serving with the U.S. Air Corps during World War II. His Purple Heart will be given to his nephew, Sarasota's Michael Beck. Pvt. William Baker was killed in France on Oct. 7, 1918 while serving with the Army and he never received a Purple Heart. Through the non-profit's efforts, one will be presented to his nephew, Ellenton's Bob Baker.

Pvt. Mick Fitzpatrick was killed June 15, 1944 at Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands during World War II. His Purple Heart will be given to his nephew, Michael Collet of Park Ridge, Ill.

Tickets to the event, which begins at 6 p.m., are $120 and available at purpleheartsreunited.org. The event will be catered by Irish Pub 32.

Fike, who lives in Saint Albans, Vt., continues to find or receive three to five medals a week.

"More than 100,000 medals have lost their way," he said. "People find them scuba diving, with metal detectors, in Walmart's parking lot, at estate sales or at thrift stores."

If the medals aren't donated, Purple Hearts Reunited tries to raise the money to buy them. That's not always inexpensive. Fike said a Pearl Harbor medal can bring as much as $10,000 on he open market.

"I have served, and I have my own (medals)," he said. "Those medals mean something."

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