Killed in Vietnam, local vet receives overdue recognition
By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun
Official Purple Heart medallions turn up in some unbecoming places — yard sales, flea markets, antique stores, auction websites. Some are inscribed with the name of their recipient, others appear orphaned.
Three years ago, Vermont Air National Guard Capt. Zacharia Fike started a non-profit whose mission it is to reunite Purple Heart medals with those to whom they belong — members of the U.S. military wounded or killed in battle. Purple Hearts Reunited works nationally to coordinate these reunions, either with wounded veterans or family members of those killed in action. On Saturday, it held one of its first Vermont ceremonies, bestowing a Purple Heart upon Pfc. Bruce Allen Baker, a U.S. Marine who was killed at the age of 19 in Vietnam in 1966. Baker is buried in Fairview Cemetery on Old Colchester Road in Essex.
The Essex Historical Society has been working with Purple Hearts Reunited to gather information about Baker’s life. According to historical society member Paula DeMichele, research shows Baker went to Essex High School for a year before joining the Marines. Some locals remember him as their newspaper delivery boy, she said. But the historical society has been unable to locate any family members of Baker’s to accept the medal. The historical society will steward the medal, framing it for public display with a photo of Baker at the historical society’s Harriet Farnsworth Powell Museum at the intersection of routes 15 and 128 near to the Essex Free Library.
Before being turned over to the historical society, the Purple Heart was part of a ceremony at Baker’s gravesite Saturday. Purple Hearts Reunited coordinated with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association on a ride that started Saturday morning in Sharon and ended at the cemetery in the early afternoon. Riders from New York and New Hampshire joined the Vermont chapter of the association on the ride.
“It’s a respectful military service. It’s also a celebration and a way to honor his life and his sacrifice,” said Purple Hearts Reunited Spokeswoman Hannah Doyle.
Baker’s Purple Heart, Doyle said, was found at an antique store in Essex Junction — with Baker’s name inscribed — and was handed over to the Vermont National Guard. The Guard contacted Purple Hearts Reunited to research Baker’s personal history and coordinate a reunion of the medal and his family members. The Essex Historical Society was recruited to help with research.
Doyle said Purple Hearts Reunited receives Purple Heart medals each week from all over the country. Those that were awarded after a soldier’s death are inscribed with a name, but most are unmarked. The organization pairs unmarked medals with families seeking Purple Hearts. Documentation from the U.S. Military confirming that the medal was bestowed is required. The U.S. Military has a process for families to appeal for a Purple Heart medal, but Purple Hearts Reunited reacts much faster than the government, Doyle said.
“As long as it is from the same era,” the organization will pair medals with deserving soldiers and their families,” she said.