Purple Heart awarded to US Marine Corps (USMC) Sergeant (SGT) Jeffery Planteen, Embarkation Specialist, Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 (MWSS 371), Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma Arizona (AZ), currently serving on the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Response Team at Camp Korean Village, Al Anbar Iraq (IRQ). SGT Planteen responded to a possible Improvised Explosive Device (IED), and was hit by a roadside IED. SGT Planteen's Squadron Commander, USMC Lieutenant Colonel (LCOL) John J. Broadmeadow, presented the Purple Heart Medal in front of the MWSS 371 Detachment, at Camp Korean Village, Al Anbar, Iraq (IRQ) during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. (USMC PHOTO BY CPL MARSHA N. GARCIA 050702-M-6717G-022)
(USMC PHOTO BY CPL MARSHA N. GARCIA 050702-M-6717G-022)

Capt. Zachariah Fike is the 2016 Army Times Soldier of the Year, and for good reason. For over four years, he has collected lost army medals in order to return them to their rightful owners – the veterans who earned them.

“The Purple Heart, for me, is just that one item that shouldn’t be sold, collected, traded. It symbolizes so much, symbolizes a soldier who either shed their blood or died on the field of battle so we can be a free nation. It deserves to be with the family or in a place of honor,” Fike told the Watertown Daily Times.

His quest began in 2009, when his mom gave him a Purple Heart she found in an antique shop. He started researching the man it originally belonged to, but before he could find anything out, he was deployed to Afghanistan with the Vermont Guard’s 86th Brigade Combat Team.

Fike served for nine months in Afghanistan. On Sept. 11, 2010, he suffered serious injuries as a result of rocket shrapnel. He lost hearing in both ears and sustained a traumatic brain injury—traumas that earned him his own Purple Heart.

When he returned home, he continued his quest to return the medal his mom gave him to its owner. After more research, he made the sad discovery that the owner, Army Pvt. Corrado Piccoli, was killed in action during WWII. He called Piccoli’s sister and they agreed to meet.

“That night, when you brought the medal down from your bedroom and I saw it was in the very same box I had last seen it in, I knew it was in good hands,” said Adeline Rockko.

In 2012, Fike founded the nonprofit organization Purple Hearts Reunited in order to continue this mission of returning medals to veterans or their surviving members. So far, the organization has returned over 200 medals.

Fike explained that these medals “are not just a piece of metal.”

“Yes it’s a symbol, but for a lot of these families, it’s the last tangible item they’ve ever received from their loved one,” he said. “It actually brings closure to a lot of these families’ lives.”