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VFW Magazine March 2018 : Page 28

PHOTO COURTESY OF ZACHARIAH FIKE Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Anthony F. Biancuzzo was wounded by small-arms fire during a rescue and recovery mission on Jan. 29, 1969, near Bien Hoa Air Base during the Vietnam War. The actions of Biancuzzo, then serving as a crew chief with the 21st Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, earned him a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Biancuzzo died in 2005, and a fellow veteran found the decorated airman’s Purple Heart — which later was returned to Biancuzzo’s family by Zachariah Fike — at a jewelry shop near Washington, D.C. and returns medals across the country. And as the charity’s fame spreads, more and more people send in Purple Hearts that need to be researched and returned. Fike now has nearly 200 medals that he hopes to reunite with their recipients. Purple Hearts turn up everywhere, often in the unlikeliest of places. Some have been stolen, others sold or mis-placed. Fike has been sent medals that were found in a landfill, covered with dirt on an elementary school playground, in yard and estate sales, in abandoned storage lockers, in garbage about to be discarded and one that was found stuck in a dryer. Another was even dug up by a dog in someone’s back yard. “It can break your heart to see how lit-tle respect some people have for these Purple Hearts,” Fike said. Reuniting these long-lost medals with their rightful owners motivates, and always moves, Fike. “A return brings closure to a family but it often means much more,” he explains. Fike remembers an especially touch-ing ceremony in Massachusetts where he returned a Purple Heart to Connie Bachman, the 84-year-old sister of 1st Lt. PHOTO COURTESY OF ZACHARIAH FIKE Thomas E. Hadley II. The Air Force pilot was killed while flying in the Korean War, and his Purple Heart had been lost for decades. In the 1960s, a landfill worker, who was a former World War II Marine, spotted Hadley’s medal atop a garbage dump and rescued it. He handed it down to his son, who handed it down to his son, who sent it to Fike after he’d read about Purple Hearts Reunited. Several weeks after the return cere-mony, Bachman called Fike and told him, “The loss of my brother created a hole in my heart I could never fill. I could never go to a veterans ceremony or even look at an American flag because it would remind me of my brother.” She paused, took a deep breath, then continued, “I have cancer and have been terrified of death all my life. But what you did — returning my brother’s Purple Heart to me — made me feel complete-ly at peace with my life. I am no longer afraid to die. Thank you.” Fike then told her, “I really believe this is your brother making you strong.” Two days later, Bachman died. “I’m not a deeply religious person, but there’s a power in these Purple Hearts and these decorated veterans that is undeniable,” Fike said. “I’ve seen it time and time again.” Fike should know. Although he rare-ly talks about it, he has another link with these fallen heroes. On Sept. 11, 2010, nine years to the day after terror-ists attacked the World Trade Center, he was wounded while serving with the Vermont National Guard’s 86th Combat Brigade in a rocket attack at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Fike received his own Purple Heart “for wounds received in combat against hostile enemy forces.” The medal now hangs on the living room wall in his parents’ home. As Fike sorts through a recent batch of Purple Heart medals he has received (he gets three to five a week), he confesses that he never forgets the stories of these Purple Heart recipients he has uncov-ered through his research. “I’ve spent so much time looking into their past that it’s as if they’re always with me, even after I’ve returned their medals,” Fike said. “So many of these sto-ries are so powerful.” Then he turns to his computer and gets back to work, trying to get yet anoth-er long-lost Purple Heart back home, back where it belongs. J EMAIL Robert Kiener is an award-winning free-lance author based in Stowe, Vt. His work has appeared in such publications as Reader’s Digest and the Christian Science Monitor . VFW life member Zachariah Fike presents a Purple Heart and other medals earned by Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Anthony F. Biancuzzo to Biancuzzo’s wife, Verna, and daughter, Cindy, on Dec. 13, 2017, at a ceremony in Vienna, Va. Fike’s nonprofit charity Purple Hearts Reunited spent $50,000 last year to buy 125 engraved Purple Hearts to return to families. 28 • VFW  • MARCH 2018

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