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Local serviceman helps Alabama family recover Purple Heart

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The efforts of a Vermont National Guard member with north country ties have helped an Alabama family recover a prized piece of its military history.

Army Capt. Zachariah L. Fike, who graduated from Carthage High School in 1999, helped the last surviving sibling of Cpl. Toulman Y. Freeman recover the Purple Heart Cpl. Freeman earned while serving in World War II.

Fighting in the Netherlands as a crewman of an anti-tank gun with the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion, 7th Armored Division, Cpl. Freeman was shot in the leg and bled to death in November 1944.

The medal, which had been held by his widow, Estelle Freeman, until her death at a southern Alabama nursing home in 2008, had been left in a bag of miscellaneous items lost in and under the facility’s washing machine.

The medal was discovered by a nurse processing the items in January. Several emails were sent in an attempt to determine its origins, with one of them going to Capt. Fike. A volunteer with the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which awards and helps recipients of the honor, Capt. Fike used online genealogy records to track down Cpl. Freeman’s relatives.

Capt. Fike presented the restored Purple Heart medal to Cpl. Freeman’s 91-year-old sister, Willie Freeman Butts, at a ceremony last Saturday at Bethany Baptist Church in Crane Hill, Ala. Cpl. Freeman’s remains were moved to the church, where his parents are buried, in 1948 after he was first buried in a military cemetery in eastern Belgium.

In addition to the Purple Heart, Capt. Fike presented Ms. Butts with eight other medals Cpl. Freeman earned but never received, along with patches from her brother’s unit.

Capt. Fike attended the ceremony on his own accord, spending more than $1,300 in airfare and presentation materials.

Capt. Fike’s assistance to the Freeman family is not the first time he has helped return missing war medals to military families. Last year, his research led to the return of medals belonging to Pvt. Corrado A.G. Piccoli, a Watertown native who was killed in Italy during World War II.

In February, he also helped the family of Air Force pilot 1st Lt. Thomas Erle Hadley II, of Lexington, Mass., recover the Purple Heart medal awarded when his plane was shot down in 1951 in North Korea.

Capt. Fike himself earned a Purple Heart after being injured in Afghanistan by a rocket blast on Sept. 11, 2009.

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