Purple Hearts Reunited and ‘Connecting Point’ on WGBY 57 reunite dog tags found in Wilbraham with family of World War II veteran
Aliz Koletas grew up in Albany, N.Y.; in childhood she heard stories about her immigrant grandmother and the toll which World War II took on her family.
“My dad’s mother watched her siblings die from hunger,” Koletas says. Those stories ensured Aliz and her generation of the Koletas family recognize “the war meant something to us.”
Fast forward to today: Koletas is now the host of “Connecting Point” on WGBY 57, the PBS affiliate in Springfield, and she’s cruising her social networks for story ideas.
Online, she learns about a non-profit group in Vermont, Purple Hearts Reunited, which works to return lost or stolen military medals to veterans or their families.
She started following the group on Facebook, and a post in which the founder, Capt. Zachariah Fike, said, “A lot of people don’t realize what goes into us finding the families of the veterans” struck a chord with Koletas.
“It made me want to reach out,” she recalled. “I wanted to tell their story.”
In October, Fike drove three hours from his home in Vermont to Springfield to tape a “Connecting Point” segment with Koletas. Her goal was to air the segment on Nov. 11, Veterans Day; she promoted it with a web premiere late last month.
Online viewer John Garvey, of Wilbraham, the owner of Garvey Communications and a social networking groupie himself, watched the episode. He remembered the battered dog tags his son, James, now 24, found more than a decade ago on their property.
“I’ve been looking to find a way to return them,” Garvey said of the tags which bore the name of Robert Bennett. “I always figured there was a local connection.”
“Connecting Point” put Garvey in touch with Fike, and, within two days, the family of Robert Bennett was reunited with the dog tags. It turns out that Bennett, who died in 2011 at the age of 84, was from upstate New York and had worked as a logger in the Northeast, which is how the dog tags may have come to be lost in Wilbraham.
Bennett served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and in June, 1944, was among the thousands of Allied sailors, soldiers and airmen who participated in the D-Day invasion of France at Normandy.
“This shows how powerful social media is,” says Koletas. “(Purple Hearts Reunited) found out who this veteran was and located his children. For them, it’s almost like having a piece of their father returned to them.”
“I feel in a small way, we were able to make a powerful impact,” she added. “This was all just on the Internet. This veteran’s family has a piece of their father which, even though he’s passed away, they can carry with them now forever. It doesn’t let what he did all those years ago die, too.”
The message of it all is not lost on Koletas, who’s in her late 20s and two generations away from World War II.
“My grandmother came to this country after World War II, she found a job, and she worked hard to pave the way for me to tell other people’s stories on TV. I want my generation to know it is important for us to remember. We still need to keep that memory alive; we wouldn’t have what we have today without their sacrifice, without having what Mr. Bennett did in World War II. It still plays a great part in our future.”