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Zachariah Fike has an unusual hobby. The Vermont Army National Guard captain finds old military medals for sale in antique stores and on the Internet. But unlike most memorabilia collectors, Zac doesn't keep the medals for himself.
Instead, he tracks down the medals' rightful owners, and returns them.
His effort to reunite families with lost medals all began with a Christmas gift from his mother — a Purple Heart, found in an antique shop and engraved with the name Corrado A.G. Piccoli.
Zac, 31, knows the significance of a Purple Heart — he earned one himself when he was wounded in Afghanistan on Sept. 11, 2010. So when his mother gave him the medal, he knew right away that he had to find the Piccoli family.
Prowling the Internet, Zac eventually tracked down two of Corrado's sisters. But when he finally reached Corrado's younger sister, Adeline Rockko, in New Lisbon, N.J., the woman had a difficult time trusting the young man on the other end of the line.
"I flooded him with questions," recalls Adeline, 85. "Bang, bang, bang. One right after the other."
Zac remembers Adeline's grilling well. "Who are you? 'What antique shop?" she asked him. "She was very stern."
But when Adeline hung up the phone, she regretted the way she had handled the call. "I walked away from the phone, and I says, 'Oh my god, he's so nice and he's returning our medal, and I treated him this way?'"
So Adeline called Zac right back. She apologized for giving him the third degree, and thanked him for what he had done.
Soon, she hopped in the car to meet Zac at his home in Watertown, N.Y.
"At that point, I knew you meant business," Zac says. "To drive eight hours to come see me."
"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," Adeline says.
The Piccolis grew up the children of Italian immigrants in Watertown. Corrado, a translator for the Army during WWII, was killed in action in Europe during the war.
Before hearing from Zac, Corrado's siblings hadn't realized the medal was missing.
Like many military medals, the one Zac's mother had found was a family treasure, Adeline says.
"This medal was very precious to my parents. And on special occasions, they would take it out and let us touch it and hold it in our hand," she says. "And then my mother would put it back in the trunk in her bedroom."
As a child, Adeline couldn't understand why the medal was so significant.
"But as I grew older," Adeline says, "and missed my brother more and more, I realized, 'Well, this is the only tangible thing that we have left.' "
Zac and Adeline got to know each other well after their initial meeting. They've talked about planning a trip to Italy, hoping to "walk some of the ground [Corrado] would have walked during the war," Zac says.
"I would like to make that trip. Really. We were very fortunate that you were the one who ended up with the Purple Heart," Adeline says. "You're part of our family now."
Corrado Piccoli's Purple Heart medal now hangs at the Italian American Civic Association in Watertown.
Zac recently returned another lost medal to a family in Alabama. Since he first reunited Corrado's siblings with their brother's medal, Zac says his record is now 5 for 5.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.