Capt. Zachariah Fike, the 2016 Army Times Soldier of the Year, doesn’t have a lot of time to spare.
The prior-enlisted infantry officer is the officer strength manager for the Vermont National Guard’s recruiting and retention battalion. He commands the company responsible for Officer Candidate School in the state’s Regional Training Institute. The husband and father of two young children also is enrolled in the information operations course as part of his Intermediate Level Education.
But much of his work doesn’t even begin until he gets home and his children are safely tucked into bed.
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."
"I can trace my lineage back to the Revolutionary War," he said. "That could’ve been my dad’s. That could have been my grandfather’s. It really broke my heart to see those things in the shops, so I became a collector."
During Christmas 2009, Fike’s mom gifted him a Purple Heart she had found in 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," Fike said.
The soldier immediately went online to research the name engraved on the medal.
His initial search came up empty.
"I found that really sad," Fike said. "This guy sacrificed his life for us, and he was essentially forgotten, and that’s the case for about 99 percent of the medals we receive. We, as a country, had forgotten about them."
Fike would go on to serve a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, during which he was wounded by shrapnel when two rockets slammed into his B-hut while he and others were asleep.
Fike had lacerations on his legs and back, lost hearing in both ears and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
"I was definitely lucky to walk out of there," he said. "Of all the times I spent outside the wire, we were in firefights here and there, and snipers and IEDs, and all the times you think you would get hit, I just happened to get hit on Bagram [Airbase]."
Fike stayed in Afghanistan and finished out his deployment, returning in December 2010.
The winners of our 16th annual Military Times Service Members of the Year awards did not seek honors for the outstanding work they performed on the job and in their communities.
That is what makes this award so special: They were nominated by peers and commanders inspired by serving alongside troops who truly went above and beyond the call of duty. In shining a spotlight on the 2016 Service Members of the Year, we salute all who have volunteered to serve their nation in uniform.
This year's winners will be honored July 14 at a Capitol Hill gala with members of Congress and other VIPs.
"I walked into my room, and the Purple Heart was still sitting there, so I picked up the research that day," he said.
On Aug. 7, 2011, Fike returned Pvt. Corrado Piccoli’s Purple Heart to his family. Piccoli, an infantryman with the 180th Infantry Regiment, was killed in action in October 1944 in Fremifontaine, France.
The ceremony to return the medal turned into a long-overdue family reunion for Piccoli’s family.
"It’s one of those things I didn’t think of," Fike said. "It just happened naturally … and I haven’t looked back since."
Purple Hearts Reunited was born in 2012. Since then, the organization 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.
Capt. Zachariah Fike has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Capt. Zacariah Fike
Maj. Robert Monette, the range operations officer for Vermont’s Camp Ethan Allen Training Site, has known Fike since Fike was a cadet at Marshall University.
Monette described his friend as a great officer and family guy who is driven by his mission to return medals to their rightful owners.
"This is a calling for him," Monette said. "He feels very strongly that the soldiers’ service and ultimate sacrifice, in many instances, should not be forgotten."
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 brigns closure to a lot of these families’ lives."
The stories he hears from surviving family members make all the work worth it, Fike said.
"It really motivates me to keep doing what we’re doing," he said.
Army National Guard 1st Sgt. Kevin Mulcahey, left, and Capt. Zachariah Fike with Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Drum, N.Y., in 2013.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Sarah Mattison/Air Force
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.
"I’m the type of guy where I’m going to give 110 percent all the time, no matter what I’m doing," he said. "Everything I’ve done, I leave it all on the line. We as Americans can never stop asking ourselves what more we can do for our veterans and our families."