As Ronda Stone sees it, she wasn't the owner of a Purple Heart medal she bought at a storage auction in Woodburn, Ore., 34 years ago. She was just holding onto it.
"I've always known it was my job to get it back to whoever it belonged to," the Canby, Ore., woman, 66, said. "I just waited and knew there would be a time I could, hopefully, find the family."
The medal, which is given to service members wounded or killed in combat, was engraved with the name Lowell L. Reynolds.
In the years before the Internet, finding Reynolds or surviving relatives of the World War II vet was an uphill battle for Stone. She tried flipping through the phonebook, but was daunted by the number of people with the same last name. She tried calling veteran's groups but had no luck, before she tucked the medal away in a drawer.
A 2006 fire decimated her home and her belongings but, somehow, the Purple Heart was unscathed.
"The smoke and fire and water didn't get it. I knew it was meant to survive," she said.
When Stone logged onto Facebook last week, she saw an advertisement offering to reunite Purple Hearts with their owners. She got in touch with U.S. Army Capt. Zachariah Fike of Purple Hearts Reunited.
"In Ronda's case, I was able to find the family in a matter of 10 minutes," Fike, 31, said.
He tracked down Reynolds' son, who was just a few years old when his father was killed in France in November of 1944.
The Purple Heart and a letter from Stone are en route to Reynolds' relatives in Idaho, she said.
"In the letter I wrote that I hoped having the Purple Heart would help him make a connection with his father," she said.
Purple Heart Reunions Began With Christmas Gift
As for Capt. Fike of Burlington, Vt., this journey began with the Purple Heart medal he received for Christmas in 2009 that changed his life.
His mother gave it to him after she purchased it in an antiques shop.
"I knew right away this medal didn't belong to me and it started me on a yearlong search for the family," he said.
"Once I saw how much it changed their life, I knew it was my calling to do this."
He has since helped to return 25 Purple Hearts that have been found everywhere from lying in the snow to antiques shops and storage auctions.
"[The Purple Heart medal] had that special place in the home. Unfortunately, over time, things happen and things get misplaced," he said.
Fike uses military databases, memorial websites and Ancestry.com to help him track down the recipients or their living relatives. In cases where an entire family is deceased, he said, he donates the medals to museums.
It has become more than a hobby, but a mission to honor the sacrifices of veterans.
Whenever possible, he gets the Purple Heart -- and any other medals the soldier owned -- framed and then travels to hand them over in person at an hour-long ceremony, funding the entire project out of his own pocket.
"For the families, it brings so much closure and this was something that they cherished," he said. "It was the last tangible item they had ever received in the mail of their loved one."