National Guard November 2012 : Page 28
Returning Valor By Bob Haskell A Vermont Army Guard captain is on a mission: reunite lost, sold or stolen Purple Heart medals with their deceased recipient’s families BURLINGTON, Vt. OUIS COTTON WOULD still be a relatively anony-mous soldier during this Veterans Day season had his Purple Heart not arrived at the U.S. Embassy in London in July, and had it not been brought to the atten-L | tion of Capt. Zachariah Fike. Because those events did transpire, Maj. Louis Cotton now has a place of honor in the 101st Airborne Division’s museum at Fort Campbell, Ky., and in the legacy of the U.S. Army. Fike presented Cotton’s Purple Heart Medal to the Brig. Gen. Don F . Pratt Memorial Museum at Fort Campbell on Aug. 7, which is Purple Heart Day. That was nearly 27 years after Cotton died in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1985, and more than 68 years after he was wounded by enemy ﬁre at Nor-mandy on June 6, 1944, which was the reason he was awarded the medal. Cotton was an artillery officer in the 101st, the executive officer of the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battal-ion, when he was shot in the leg while jumping into France during the D-Day invasion. He recovered from that wound, became an operations officer with the 7th Army in England and left the war in 1945, according to Fike’s research. Cotton retired as a lieutenant 28 Na tional Guard
A Vermont Army Guard captain is on a mission: reunite lost, sold or stolen Purple Heart medals with their deceased recipient’s families
BURLINGTON, Vt. LOUIS COTTON WOULD still be a relatively anonymous soldier during this Veterans Day season had his Purple Heart not arrived at the U. S. Embassy in London in July, and had it not been brought to the attention of Capt. Zachariah Fike.
Because those events did transpire, Maj. Louis Cotton now has a place of honor in the 101st Airborne Division’s museum at Fort Campbell, Ky., and in the legacy of the U.S. Army.
Fike presented Cotton’s Purple Heart Medal to the Brig. Gen. Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum at Fort Campbell on Aug. 7, which is Purple Heart Day. That was nearly 27 years after Cotton died in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1985, and more than 68 years after he was wounded by enemy fire at Normandy on June 6, 1944, which was the reason he was awarded the medal.
Cotton was an artillery officer in the 101st, the executive officer of the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, when he was shot in the leg while jumping into France during the Dday invasion. He recovered from that wound, became an operations officer with the 7th Army in England and left the war in 1945, according to Fike’s research. Cotton retired as a lieutenant Colonel in October 1963.
Still, there are some unanswered questions about this Purple Heart. Who sent it to the U.S. Embassy in a plain envelope? Why did it turn up in England so many years after Cotton had returned to America? Where was it kept or hidden for decades?
“We may never know,” says Fike, who has tried to unravel similar mysteries on behalf of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Fike, who has a Purple Heart of his own, has spent a considerable amount of personal time and energy, as well as thousands of dollars, researching and reuniting Purple Hearts that have been lost or stolen or sold or discarded with the families of the deceased recipients. He has also presented Bronze Stars, a Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals to seven families of recipients.
“If I can re-honor someone who has sacrificed so much for us, that makes me feel good,” Fike says. “This is not about Zac Fike. It is about doing the right thing for people who fought, bled and died for this country.”
Fike presented Cotton’s Purple Heart to the museum at Fort Campbell because he could not locate anyone closely related to Cotton.
“I couldn’t think of a better place to take that medal than to the 101st Airborne Division,” he says.
The Purple Heart has a special place in the American psyche. Although it is not this nation’s highest military award, it is highly regarded because so many people understand what it takes to get one—being wounded or killed by enemy action.
The estimated 1.9 million men and women who have received Purple Hearts have suffered or died for their country. Some have been injured or died while prisoners of war. It means they were there.
We can thank Gen. Douglas MacArthur for giving so many people That distinction. His general order of Feb. 22, 1932, when he was the Army’s chief of staff, “revived” the award that Gen. George Washington had created in 1782 as the Badge of Military Merit for “singularly meritorious action.”
But Washington presented the badge to just three men. Three others apparently received the badge for “faithful service.”
MacArthur’s order 80 years ago paved the way for many more people, including those who fought during World War I, as well as in the Civil War and Spanish-American War, to receive Purple Hearts.
Just because the award is universally respected, however, does not mean that every Purple Heart remain a treasured keepsake. Some wind up on the open market.
“There’s a lot of different ways they show up. Some are sold. Some are reported as stolen. Sometimes a veteran dies and no one knows what to do with it. Some people don’t know what it is or don’t care,” says John Bircher, a spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart based in Springfield, Va. “Not a lot of them are out there, but there’s more than we would like.”
The idea that Purple Hearts have lost their homes, that they wind up in antique shops or get sold to collectors for several hundred dollars, does not sit well with Fike.
“It’s so sad. It breaks my heart to see these things sold or collected,” Fike told a reporter at Fort Campbell. “They should be with the families or in places of honor where people can see them.”
To that end, he obtains every stray Purple Heart he can from the Military Order of the Purple Heart, from friends and from Craigslist and eBay with the idea of returning them to the families of the recipients.
The 31-year old Guard officer, whose father is a retired Army command sergeant major and mother was once a drill corporal at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., is not a historian by training or profession.
A full-time infantry officer, he trains and validates Vermont Army National Guard soldiers for mobilizations. In his part-time role, he commands 92 reconnaissance soldiers in Vermont’s Bravo (“Blackjack”) Troop, 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry.
He is also a warrior in his own right with two Bronze Stars from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He has a Purple Heart for wounds to his right leg when an insurgent rocket hit his hut well before dawn at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
He says a lot of people think he tracks down Purple Heart histories because of his own medal.
“That’s really not the case,” he says.
His commitment began at Christmas 2009 when his mother, Joyce Fike, gave him a Purple Heart that she had bought for $100 at an antique shop in Watertown, N.Y.
“I thought he would add it to his military collection,” she says. “I never thought in a million years it would lead to this. I’m very proud of what he’s doing.”
Fike knew he couldn’t keep that medal. It belonged to the family of the soldier whose name was engraved on the back. Pvt. Corrado Piccoli was awarded that Purple Heart after he was killed in France in 1944.
Fike eventually located the family and presented the medal in Watertown on Aug. 7, 2011.
He has since found and presented Purple Hearts to families in Alabama, Kentucky and Massachusetts. In September, he returned a Purple Heart to the family of the late Pvt. Ralph Bingham, a World War I veteran who lost a leg in France, at the Massachusetts National Cemetery on Cape Cod.
Fike has gained national acclaim since being featured in stories by the Associated Press and on The Huffington Post. NPR broadcast a report About him in early July. NBC has twice reported on his project. Fike received 15 more medals to reunite with families following an NBC Nightly News report in mid-August.
He has created a not-for-profit organization, Purple Hearts Reunited Inc. (email PurpleHeartsReunited@ hotmail.com), so people can support his project.
“He is truly amazing,” says Bircher. “We’ve formally embraced him as a member of our Military Order of the Purple Heart’s Americanization Program.”
“He has a heart for soldiers,” says Army Reserve Master Sgt. Eric Butts, a nephew of Cpl. Toulman Freeman from Alabama who reportedly was shot in the leg and bled to death in Holland in 1944.
The Purple Heart that Freeman received posthumously was discovered in 2010 in the closet of a nursing home where Freeman’s widow, Estelle, died in 2008.
No one knew to whom the medal bearing Freeman’s name belonged because Estelle had since married a man named Clayton. But she carried her first husband’s medal with her for the rest of her life.
The medal was turned over to the Military Order of the Purple Heart and then mailed to Fike. He tracked down Freeman’s sister and only surviving sibling, Willie Elizabeth Freeman, and in June presented the Purple Heart and eight other medals Freeman had received to the family at Bethany Baptist Church in rural Crane Hill, Ala., where Cpl. Freeman is buried near his parents.
“It was just an awesome experience to learn a little bit of what happened to Uncle Toulman. All I’d ever heard was that he shipped off to war and was killed.” says Butts, the son of Willie Freeman. “We are very blessed and appreciative of the effort that it took for this event to take place.”
Bob Haskell is a retired Maine Army National Guard master sergeant and a freelance journalist in Falmouth, Mass. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
GRAVE MOMENT Capt. Zachariah Fike holds the Purple Heart awarded to Pvt.
Corrado Piccoli, who was interred in Watertown, N.Y., after he was killed in France in World War II. Fike presented the medal to Piccoli’s family last year.
GIFT OF HONOR Capt. Zachariah Fike presents Barbara MacNevin with a U.S. flag and the Purple Heart awarded to her father, World War I Pvt. Ralph Bingham. Watertown Daily Times
“It breaks my heart to see these things sold or collected. They should be with the families or in places of honor.” —Capt. Zachariah Fike Vermont Army National Guard
“It is about doing the right thing for people who fought, bled and died for this country.” —Capt. Zachariah Fike Vermont Army National Guard
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