In late April, Michael Mazzariello Jr., 11, and his brother, Mauro, 8, rifled through a bin of war medals at an antique shop in New York.
Their father, Michael, brought the boys to Newburgh's Antique & Collectible Shop to shop for G. I. Joes as a reward for their good grades. Instead, his sons were immediately fascinated by three medals — a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Good Conduct Medal — bearing the same name: Charles George.
Despite the medals being worth an estimated $800, one of the owners allowed the boys to have them for free — on the condition they reunite the medals with the original recipient's family.
After a search that included senators, veterans and YouTube — a video showed a hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, being renamed after the soldier — the Mazzariello brothers determined that Charles George was a Cherokee war hero who threw himself on a grenade to save those fighting in his company during the Korean War. His heroic deed earned him the military's highest honour: the Medal of Honour.
"We went in looking for a G.I. Joe Real American Hero and came out with a real American hero," Michael, Jr., told ABC News.
While George's parents held on to his Medal of Honour, they somehow lost his other three awards.
The boys handed over the medals to George's family at a Veteran's Day ceremony in North Carolina on Monday to a standing ovation.
"As both of our grandfathers served in World War II and our uncle Tony served in Vietnam, we had heard the stories of real life veteran's struggles. It's real. It's not a video game," said Mauro. "It is only now that Michael and I can rest knowing that the tribal leaders and the family of Charles George have in possession the medals that belong to them."
See a photo gallery of the ceremony here.
According to the Cherokee One Feather, Commander Ernie Ellis, North Carolina State VFW Vice Commander, said at the event: "Private George sacrificed his life by putting himself between certain death and his fellow soldiers. With his act of immeasurable courage, Private Charles George was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour, this country's highest award. His actions define the meaning of above and beyond and call of duty."
Ellis continued, "It is unknown how three of his medals ended up in a store in New York, but we do owe a special thanks to the Mazzariello family for recognizing the importance of the medals they discovered."
"It was the most satisfying moment of my life, to finally give the medals back to them," young Michael said, adding that he now wants to be a military doctor when he grows up, "so I can help fix them."