The quote “No day shall erase you from the memory of time” is part of a wall-sized art installation within the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Each letter was forged from steel recovered from attacks on the World Trade Center. Resting on a sea of blues the heartfelt sentiment transcends time, ethnicity and political ideology.
Seventeen years after hijackers signaled a new-age style of war the United States continues to memorialize those lost on that blue-skied September morning. Observing the date President Trump delivered a speech at the site of a new Shanksville, Pa. Memorial. Standing 93 feet tall “Tower of Voices” is an amalgam of steel and concrete featuring 40 wind chimes to voice a remembrance of each of the forty passengers and crew aboard United Airlines Flight 93.
9/11/2001 is a day we say ‘We Will Never Forget’ but can the monumental sentiment stand the cultural test of time?
Since last year’s racially motivated clash in the hometown of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson there’s been a screaming land-rush to rewrite American history. Coast to coast protestors are demanding monuments be altered, sometimes destroyed. Others prefer society symbolically sanitize landmarks that include injustices wholly inconsistent with today’s national values. In stark contrast, there are others who speak softly as they travel across the country on a mission to right historic monuments. These activists are determined to recognize history in its totality, learn from its valuable lessons and treasure tangible symbols of sacrifice.
In August of 2017, reeling from violence steeped in racial tensions within Charlottesville, Virginia protestors in California demanded the ‘Hollywood Forever Cemetery’ remove a stone memorial from it’s private property. Installed in 1925, the monument honored a site where 37 Civil-War era veterans and their families are buried.
Activists gathered in Chicago last spring demanding dispatch of a bronze statue and argued against maintenance of Confederate Mound. Established in 1855 on federally owned land inside private ‘Oak Woods Cemetery’, Confederate Mound is a resettlement grave site for more than 4,000 veterans of the Civil War. National Park Service records indicate President Grover Cleveland and 100,000 on-lookers attended its 1895 dedication ceremony.
By cherry-picking which parts of our national chronicle to acknowledge, the sensitivities of some Bostonians are similarly reframing history.
Present Red Sox team owner, John Henry announced last May that he was haunted by former owner Tom Yawkey’s legacy of racism. To exorcise that spirit, Henry suggested Yawkey Way, Fenway Park’s lucrative version of an urban mini-mall, officially revert to its original moniker, ‘Jersey Way’.
Before the sudden change of address, little mention was made of the context of the deceased Yale graduate’s life or his investment in the culture of the city. While tidying-up history, Boston Mayor Walsh and the city’s Public Improvement Commission overlooked Yawkey’s 1953 adoption of the Jimmy Fund as his team’s charity or his Foundation’s cornerstone donations to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, and ongoing scholarships awarded annually to universities, high schools, disadvantaged kids, and to city-wide playground enhancements.
Further symbolic sterilization of history was outlined by Boston Globe columnist Liz Kowalczyk. In June she reported the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical school affiliate, has decided in the spirit of diversity to “disperse portraits of past white male luminaries”. Kowalczyk quoted Dr. Betsy Nabel, the hospital’s first female president saying “she had considered ending the tradition of hanging pictures of retired chairs in the (Bornstein) auditorium for several years, especially as more women and minorities train as doctors in the hospital.” The article also quoted Nabel saying “we need to make sure that our culture creates a sense of belonging for all.”
In a similar vein, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker hijacked a painful chapter in the charter of the Bay Colony’s history last October when he ordered a George’s Island headstone commemorating the lives of 13 Confederate soldiers who died at Fort Warren be removed. The Governor’s selective sense of which historical facts to remember successfully erased the slate of Civil War history from a designated national historic landmark in Boston Harbor.
In contrast to the cultural commitment by some of today’s imperious leaders to remove vestiges of history from our zeitgeist Major Zach Fike (pictured below), of the Vermont Army National Guard has founded an organization to honor the memory of veterans who have earned a Purple Heart. To date, Purple Hearts Reunited has recovered more than 500 lost or stolen medals, with more arriving each week. Having returned more than 200 medals, the non-profit organization’s ambitious goal is to reunite every found medal to its veteran, their family or an appropriate military museum.
In a comprehensive conversation with New Boston Post, Major Fike explained his love of the military runs DNA deep, his dad is a Vietnam vet, his mom was one of the first Drill Sergeants in the Army. Direct descendants of the Major served in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. For him there is no divide; national history is family history. Listening to Major Fike explain his quest to return Purple Hearts to their rightful owners is to hear stories of super-sleuthing through history, sophisticated genetic testing and the simple dignities of life.
Like many, Fike has had a life-long interest in military memorabilia. The self-described ‘old soul’ said it was a Christmas gift of a lost Purple Heart from his mom in 2009 that sparked his mission to return the medal. He said, “In my heart I knew the medal was not mine to keep.” On the back of most Purple Hearts, awarded to those wounded or killed in action, is an inscription of the recipients name or battle scene and date. Those engravings map clues to the medal’s trek back in time when its history was forged with blood and service to the country.
Fike said in the nine years of returning Purple Hearts his one-man band has grown. He shares the volunteer work with Sarah Corry, Jessica Jaggars, Lt.Col. Mitch ‘Taco’ Bell (Ret. Marine) and others.
Quoting inspiration from General S. Patton ‘Taco’ outlined the vectors of his life. Describing himself as a lucky guy Bell joined the Marines in 1986 as a winged Naval Aviator. His present career takes him around the world flying 787’s for American Airlines. Actively involved in a variety of Veteran’s charities and organizations in the Dallas area, a serendipitous conversation connected Bell with Fike uniting the former combat veterans, and Sons of the American Revolution in their determined search for honorees of the medal that bears George Washington’s likeness.
Serving as Director of Purple Hearts Reunited, Valor Guard Captain Bell has conducted return ceremonies around the country. He says he sees many of the ceremonies as ” ‘God Points in Life”, for their ability to reunite families that had been lost to each other for generations.” The project is also a family affair for ‘Bell’. His mother Mary McCampell Bell is a certified genealogist who has successfully researched randomly retrieved medals from granny’s long lost sewing basket, junkyards and an occasional digging dog.
Once the identity of the recipient is established, Zach Fike, Jessica Jaggars, or Mitch Bell reaches out to the medal’s owner or their descendants to arrange a dignified return ceremony. Some occasions include grand remembrances at local VFW’s, while others are held in a family home or even a nursing home. Bell recalled on August 4th, 2011 (National Purple Heart Day), he was honored to return a Purple Heart to an elderly woman whose brother had died in WWII. In a soft voice the woman explained her brother had been her sidekick in all their youthful adventures. As Bell returned the medal to her he said he felt she looked beyond him, her face softened and she radiated a sense of peace. Days later the woman passed away, Bell believed she had been waiting her brother’s memorial to come to her.
The Purple Hearts Reunited team believes each return ceremony is a heartfelt validation of tradition and “doing the right thing.” For them the sacrifices of those who earned a Purple Heart transcend time, ethnicity and political ideology. Proudly they say those men and women helped to create a culture for all people and remain a vital part of our nation’s monumental legacy.
Major Fike concluded our interview with the timeless reminder, “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.”
“A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” -John F. Kennedy ~ Remarks at Amherst College October 26, 1963
To return a lost Purple Heart the address is : Purple Heart Reunited 38 N. Main Street Suite 112 Albans Vt. 05478
To inquire about a lost Purple Heart contact Sarah@PurpleHeartsReunited.org
Diane Kilgore is a journalist in the Greater Boston Area. She is a Cultural Contributor for NewBostonPost and creator of the lifestyle blog ‘To Di For’.