"These are our forefathers; these are the guys that have shed their blood or sacrificed their lives for us," Zachariah Fike told AP

By Rose Minutaglio
Updated May 30, 2016 03:20 PM
Credit: Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

A Vermont nonprofit that returns lost Purple Hearts to veterans and their descendants is attempting to reunite 100 World War I military medals of valor with the families of recipients before the 100th anniversary of when the United States joined the international conflict on April 6, 1917.

Purple Hearts Reunited has returned hundreds of lost or stolen medals to rightful owners since it was founded in 2012, providing solace to families looking for a way to commemorate their loved ones.

Zachariah Fike, a combat-wounded veteran and founder of the organization, says taking on the ambitious project will provide comfort to 100 families while also shedding light on World War I recipients’ great bravery.

“You’re honoring fallen heroes. These are our forefathers; these are the guys that have shed their blood or sacrificed their lives for us. Any opportunity to bring light to that is always a good thing,” Fike told the Associated Press.

Fike decided to take on the project when he realized he had exactly 100 Purple Hearts or lithographs (equivalent to Purple Hearts before they were created in 1932) in his collection, reports AP.

Using the names on the certificates and medals, he’s worked with researches to track down around 24 families so far – and he’s only just getting started.

The first of many planned Purple Heart returns took place in Thomasville, Pennsylvania, over Memorial Day weekend in honor of CPL William Frederick Zartman, who was wounded on July 22, 1918 while fighting in France.

Zartman’s descendants had no idea of his heroism during World War I.

“He died before I was born, and I never knew anything more about it. My whole family is in shock, really It’s a fantastic thing to find out,” Wayne Bowers, a family member, told AP.

Fike is hoping to fulfill his promise to return all 100 medals or lithographs by April 6, 2017. He works with experienced researchers to find the families. Once located, he teams up with local Vermont framing shops to mount the medals and certificates, which he then presents to the descendants.

He is raising money for the cost of each medal presentation, which comes out to about $1,500. The returns, which generally take place in the descendants’ hometowns, include handing over framed medals in a formal ceremony, reports AP.

If Fike is unable to locate a family, he donates the memorabilia to “homes of honor” like local museums or historical societies.