2016 Soldier of the Year
Capt. Zachariah Fike
Capt. Zachariah Fike is the founder of Purple Hearts Reunited, a non-profit group dedicated to returning lost medals and military keepsakes to veterans or their loved ones.
“I don’t sleep,” Fike said. “This is probably the busiest I’ve been in my career.”
Fike, a Purple Heart recipient who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, started down this road after his 2006 tour in Iraq.
“I think any soldier who goes off to war changes as a person, whether they want to admit it or not,” he said. “People deal with stresses, or whatever you want to call it, differently. Some find sports or find hobbies or go fishing or hunting. I had a good friend who got me into antique hunting. I enjoyed looking for that lost treasure, if you will.”
In 2009, his mother gifted him a Purple Heart she found at an antique shop.
“As soon as I opened it, of course I knew what it was, but I knew right away that it wasn’t meant for me,” said Fike, who researched the medal and eventually returned it to the descendants of the proper owner, a WWII vet who died in combat in 1944.
Since then, Purple Hearts Reunited has returned more than 200 medals to veterans or their surviving family members, and the group receives three to five medals in the mail every week.
Fike’s goal for the coming year is to return the approximately 100 World War I medals he’s received by April 2017, in time to mark the 100th anniversary of that war.
The medals “are not just a piece of metal,” Fike said. “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. It actually brings closure to a lot of these families’ lives.”
Maj. Robert Monette said it’s “a calling” for Fike. “He feels very strongly that the soldiers’ service and ultimate sacrifice, in many instances, should not be forgotten,” he said.
So far, Fike has done most of the work that goes into researching a veteran, tracking down their families and organizing a return ceremony. But he’s been building a network of volunteers to help him keep up with the overwhelming number of medals and mementos Purple Hearts Reunited receives in the mail.
For his day job, Fike works full time as the officer strength manager for the Vermont National Guard’s recruiting and retention battalion. He also commands the company responsible for Officer Candidate School in the state’s Regional Training Institute. And the husband and father of two young children is enrolled in the information operations course as part of his Intermediate Level Education