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Associated Press
Shirley Cowell reacts after being reunited with her brother's Purple Heart he earned way back in 1945.

IDAHO FALLS (AP) — Shirley Cowell told herself she wasn't going to cry.

This was her brother's day — a celebration of the life of Seaman 1st Class George S. Story, who died nearly 68 years ago during a World War II sea battle off the coast of Okinawa.

The 86-year-old Idaho Falls woman did her best to fend off the waves of emotion that washed over her again and again.

Even before the 2 o'clock ceremony began, Cowell stopped a recollection midsentence as painful memories choked off her speech, the words unable to leave her throat.

It was Cowell who answered the door that long-ago day — the day her brother's Purple Heart and Presidential Citation arrived by certified mail.

Over the years, however, the family lost track of the medal and citation that meant so much.

But those priceless mementos would be back in Cowell's hands — reuniting her with her lost brother, if only in spirit.

Cowell paused, then gathered herself.

"It means a lot," she whispered.

Cowell paused again.

"He's a wonderful guy," she said of her big brother. "He's 22 months older than me. He was born early (premature). I remember we put him in a shoe box in the oven (to keep him warm)."

Cowell chuckled.

Today, the shoe-box-in-the-oven technique has been replaced by hospital intensive-care incubators.

"We were very close," Cowell continued. "He watched out for me and I watched out for him. We had such good times."

Story was a 20-year-old serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill when it came under attack May 11, 1945. The ship was supporting the invasion of Okinawa when it was struck twice by kamikazes — Japanese pilots who sacrificed their lives by crashing their airplanes into their targets.

Hundreds of sailors were wounded that day. Hundreds more died. Story was among the fallen heroes.

Army Capt. Zachariah Fike listened as Cowell recalled her brother.

If not for Fike and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Roger Balbo, the ceremony that reunited Cowell with her brother's Purple Heart never would have happened.

It was Cowell's parents who kept her brother's medal and citation. After Cowell's mother died, her father remarried. When Story's father and his new wife, Grace, later died, within months of each other, the Purple Heart came into the possession of Balbo, one of Grace's sons.

Balbo tried but failed to find Cowell. He had read about Fike's efforts to return Purple Hearts to the families of the servicemen who earned them. He later saw Fike on a television talk show. He contacted Fike, who later that same day had located Cowell, setting in motion the events that culminated in Idaho Falls.

While Fike remains on active duty, he spends his off-duty hours working on his Purple Hearts project. He's even launched a foundation — Purple Hearts Reunited.

Fike's undertaking is a true labor of love. He said he spends his own time on the project and funds it out of his own pocket.

"I've been doing this for three years," he said. "For me, it's all about the family connection, the closure it brings families."

Balbo also attended the service. As a combat veteran himself, Balbo said he understood the significance — and the need — to make sure Story's medal was returned to his family.

"It was very moving, holding that medal, the significance of it," Balbo said.

The Purple Heart ceremony also spawned a family reunion.

For the first time in a while, Cowell also was reunited with her three sons — Peter, Scott and Don Isaksen.

Scott Isaksen flew into Idaho Falls from New York; the Story family originally lived in Oceanside, N.Y. Don Isaksen came from South Carolina to attend the ceremony. Peter Isaksen lives in Idaho Falls. Cowell has lived in the city since 1980.

Family, friends and a number of World War II veterans also attended the hour-long program at Trinity United Methodist Church.

After bugler Bob Reinisch played taps, which was followed by a spirited piano-pipe organ duet on "Anchors Aweigh," the ceremony ended.

A beaming Cowell visited with friends both old and new and encouraged everybody to stay for refreshments.

Fike, however, was saying his goodbyes. He needed to drive to Boise, where he would bring another Purple Heart home to its family.

Cowell gave him a hug.

"I'd just like to thank everyone for coming," she said. "It was such a wonderful day."

Purple Hearts reunited

Army Capt. Zachariah L. Fike seeks to return Purple Heart medals to the families of the loved ones who received them. Visit www.purpleheartsreunited.org. Email Fike at purpleheartsreunited@hotmail.com or call (315) 523-3609. On Facebook: Purple Hearts Reunited INC.