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Seventy years later, NC WWII vet getting Purple Heart returned

RALEIGH, N.C. -- When Army Cpl. George Hemphill returned to North Carolina from fighting in World War II, he tried to put the horrors of life as an infantryman behind him by not talking about what he had seen. That included not asking about the Purple Heart he had received and mailed home for safekeeping.

So imagine his confusion when he learned that a Florida man had purchased his medal in 2000 at an antique store in South Carolina with the hope of one day returning it to its rightful owner. And that a man in Vermont now had his Purple Heart and wanted to return it to him in a ceremony to honor his service.

"I'm just flabbergasted," said Hemphill, 90, of Union Mills. "I don't know what to think. They're just going out of their way to give it back to me. I'm just grateful to them for all the work they're doing. And the expense, it's just something. I don't know how to describe it."

Hemphill will get his Purple Heart in a ceremony Sunday afternoon at the Rutherfordton Community Center. Capt. Zachariah Fike of Burlington, Vt., who runs the nonprofit Purple Hearts Reunited, will present the award to Hemphill, along with a Bronze Star that Hemphill never knew the military had granted him.

Fike has returned 20 of the awards since he started Purple Hearts Reunited in 2009, each time either to the family members of the recipient or to a museum if no family members survived. Today will mark the first time he's reunited a Purple Heart with a living recipient.

"Returning these medals brings closure to the families. I absolutely love doing it," said Fike, noting donations don't nearly cover his expenses of buying the Purple Hearts and travel to present them. "I've spent quite a bit of money on this project. I would do it 10 times over because it's the right thing to do."