(NEW YORK) — When his sons do well in school, Michael Mazzariello of Wallkill, N.Y., takes them to Newburgh’s Antique & Collectible Shop for a special treat — G.I. Joes.
A trip in late April brought an even greater reward when a bin of soldiers’ medals caught the boys’ eyes. Rifling through them, Michael, 11, and Mauro, 8, came across three honors bearing the same soldier’s name: Charles George.
The purple heart, bronze star and good conduct awards they found in the tiny New York shop belonged to the namesake of Asheville, N.C.’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center and a recipient of the United States’ highest military honor, the medal of honor.
“We went in looking for a G.I. Joe Real American Hero and came out with a real American hero,” the 6th grader Michael said.
The Mazzariello boys got to see the awards united with George’s family at a Veteran’s Day ceremony in North Carolina on Monday.
“It was the most satisfying moment of my life, to finally give the medals back to them,” the 11-year-old said.
Terrance Berean, one of the store’s owners, estimated the medals’ worth at $800 because of their good condition and the unique circumstances of their origin.
“They were from a Cherokee Indian who died supposedly from a grenade, so that escalates [their value] way up,” Berean said.
However, Berean’s son agreed to give the Mazzariellos the medals for free on one condition — that they find their rightful owner.
Using a combination of state senators, veterans and YouTube, the boys were able to determine that these were the medals of an American hero.
On Nov. 30, 1952, George, whose Cherokee name “Tsali” means self-sacrifice, threw himself on a grenade that killed him, but saved those fighting in his company during the Korean War. His legacy was honored not only by his local Eastern Band Cherokee community, but also by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, according to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs website.
Eisenhower invited George’s parents to Washington D.C. to receive the honors on their son’s behalf and though they held tight to the Medal of Honor, their son’s other awards somehow got lost.
Sixty years after George died serving the United States, the medals honoring his service were finally reunited with his family. Michael and Mauro spoke to a crowd gathered to honor veterans, bringing both tears and smiles to attendees’ faces.
“There were standing ovations, crying, crazy emotional. And it was wonderful for us to meet Charles George’s family — nieces, nephews, crazy,” the Mazzariellos’ father Michael said.
After this journey, young Michael has decided he too wants to serve his country.
“I want to be a doctor for the military so I can help fix them,” he said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio