A Purple Heart is given to honor an act of courage and sacrifice by a military hero. However, because many veterans pass away in the line of duty before receiving the medal, or even after many years of retirement, many Purple Hearts are left without homes. In those cases, the Purple Heart would go to the nearest relative or family members of the veteran. But quite often, those family members cannot be found, are no longer living, or lose track of the medals in some way.
Purple Hearts Reunited (purpleheartsreunited.org) works to restore these missing medals to their proper owners – usually the next of kin to fallen veterans. Through the process of recovering medals and researching the appropriate owners, Purple Hearts Reunited ensures that the fallen are remembered, and the living healed.
In a commemorative ceremony, thirty military veterans act as valor guard on the day when a Purple Heart is returned to its family. But the restoration of a Purple Heart to its rightful home is the daily work of Zac Fike, founder, and Sarah Corry, development director, of Purple Hearts Reunited.
“I was looking for an outlet to deal with some of the stressors that I experienced in my first combat deployment,” he told AFA Journal. “A friend of mine collected antiques and began taking me along on these treasure hunts. I was surprised to find discarded military items within these shops: helmets, military uniforms, medals. It really broke my heart because I come from a long line of military tradition. I began to rescue these items.
“Then, in 2009, my mom purchased as a present for me a posthumous Purple Heart that had been awarded to a soldier of World War II. It really just didn’t sit right with me, and I knew I had to get it back to its family. We were able to do that successfully, and that’s what sparked Purple Hearts Reunited.”
After 20 years of combat deployment, finding and restoring Purple Heart medals only means that much more to Fike. Purple Hearts Reunited has returned over 400 Purple Hearts to veterans and their family members, and it continues to receive 3-5 recovered medals each week.
The staff of Purple Hearts Reunited is made up entirely of volunteers who are veterans or have a family connection to military service. They painstakingly research to locate the living heirs of each missing medal, have it custom framed to keep the name engraving visible, and then travel to the owner’s hometown to deliver it personally in a ceremony in which they detail the medal’s history and the veteran’s act of service.
“It’s really overwhelming to be a part of; it has changed my life,” Corry told AFAJ. “I’m the daughter of a Marine Vietnam veteran, who’s also a two-time Purple Heart recipient. So I personally know the meaning behind these medals, and to be able to give that back to a family means everything. It provides them with closure. Sometimes, they hear about their family’s history for the very first time. It brings families who have had rifts back together again. It is also very cathartic for our veterans who are involved as valor guards in the ceremony. The healing quality is very hard to describe; you just have to feel it.”
“At the end of the day,” Fike said, “we get to honor men and women who have sacrificed for their country, and every day we witness the impact that has on people’s lives. We owe it to them to preserve their legacy, to tell their stories, and to make sure that they’re never forgotten.”