After surviving blaze, Purple Heart returned to its rightful own - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

After surviving blaze, Purple Heart returned to its rightful owners

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CONWAY, SC (WIS) -

Fifteen years ago among the pile of ashes that was once a trailer home, Shane Grey found a box that survived the blaze.

"We were out cleaning the yards up, picking up trash and some of the debris from their yard," said Grey. "We just happened to find it up under some trash."

Inside the box was a Purple Heart, issued decades ago during World War II. The medal was given to the family of Army Tech Sgt. Odell Holden, who died in France during the conflict.

"I opened the box and I looked at my wife and said, 'This is a Purple Heart,'" said Grey. "We just looked at each other for a little while and I was like, what am I supposed to do with this thing?"

After dwelling on it, the mission became clear: find Holden's family and return the award. But it wasn't easy. After spending weeks looking for the Holden family, Grey gave up, but held on to the medal.

"If it wasn't for those people out there fighting, we wouldn't have a chance now," said Grey. "It had to get back to the family. We knew that, we just didn't know how to do it."

Enter Capt. Zachariah Fike, himself a Purple Heart winner. Fike started "Purple Hearts Reunited," a group dedicating to tracking down Purple Heart family members and reuniting them with their medals.

Fike says the medals have become highly collectible and his mission is to keep them out of the hands of private collectors.

"I collect antiques. I'm a collector, but the Purple Heart is one item that should not be collected," said Fike. "It means so much, someone who died for our country. It should be with a family or in a place of honor."

In just ten minutes of research, Fike located Holden's nephew, Buddy Richardson who was also a veteran.

"When I was told the medal had been found, it was overwhelming," said Richardson. "It was such an honor for that medal to be brought back to the family, and it be an Horry county boy who reunited it with an Horry County family. It's just all tied together. It's phenomenal."

Richardson says he never got the chance to meet his uncle because he died when he was just 4 years old. However, Richardson says his mother often spoke very fondly of her brother because they were so close as children.

The group arranged for the medal to be given to Richardson and his family in a ceremony in Conway.

Richardson says the medal is returning to a family with four veterans, who will know exactly how to appreciate the sacrifice many military families make.

"I took an oath to serve my country, and I did what I was ordered to do by the commander-in-chief. I felt like my uncle was the same way. He took an oath, went in the Army, didn't complain, but didn't come home," said Richardson.

But most of all, Richardson says he's grateful to Grey for holding on to the medal.

"For that young man to have that medal for 15 years and not to dispose of it, sell it or whatever, that's just a miracle in itself," said Richardson. "He has to be such a fine person, that family has to be such a fine family for them to hold on to that medal all this time."

"I'm just overwhelmed right now," said Grey. "I'm nervous, I'm sitting here shaking. As long as he's happy and it gets back to where it belonged, that's all we wanted," said Grey. 

For Fike, meanwhile, it's just another success story.

"Odell sacrificed his life so this nation could be free, and unfortunately they're forgotten over time. We as Americans should put them on a pedestal and never forget them," said Fike. "Now his story will be told, people will know who Odell was. His medal will forever be with his family versus a trash dump or private collection somewhere."

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