The True Weight Of A Purple Heart
by Melissa Buckley
U.S. Army Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office
August 7, 2023
It is one of the most-revered medals, but it is also one nobody wants to earn ... the Purple Heart.
National Purple Heart Day ... observed each year on August 7th ... is often described as a day for Americans to remember and honor the men and women who bravely represented their country and were wounded or killed while serving. The medal itself weighs about an ounce ... but holds the weight and suffering of those battlefield memories.
Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Army photo by Melissa Buckley, Fort Leonard Wood Public Affairs Office.
The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor estimates more than 1.8 million Purple Heart medals have been presented to service members since the award was created in 1782.
One of those recipients is Master Sgt. Sean Ambriz. He is preparing to move to Fort Carson, Colorado, at the end of this month, after serving here as first sergeant for Company E, 701st Military Police Battalion, for the past two years.
Ambriz earned his Purple Heart in 2009, when he was a 20-year-old private first class deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
“The battle was the most physically and mentally draining day in my life,” Ambriz said. “When the Purple Heart was pinned to my chest, I could feel the weight of that battle and those we lost that day. It was a heartfelt moment that was surreal and hard to fathom. I kept replaying that day in my head, and it was a huge honor to carry that award that so many others before me sacrificed for.”
Ambriz said being a Purple Heart recipient makes him feel like he must be the best Soldier he can be. He said Soldiers look up to him and what the award represents, and it is up to him to be an ambassador for the award and live up to it.
“It is my obligation to those before me and my previous leaders, to pass my knowledge and experience to the next generation,” Ambriz said. “It is my duty to teach them, so that they may learn from our successes, failures and endeavors. So, that when they ultimately and inevitably face off with death; they can apply our experiences of combat to their situation and overcome it.”
Ambriz said he plans to, “stay humble and pay tribute to my ... alive day ... by being grateful I am still here, when many others who earned this award are not.”
Another Purple Heart recipient, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremy Newby, a team leader for the Motor Transport Instruction Company of the Fort Leonard Wood Marine Corps Detachment, is currently in the process of transitioning to retirement.
He earned his Purple Heart in 2006, when he was a 21-year-old lance corporal serving with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division, in Camp Fallujah, Iraq.
“We were conducting operations to resupply observation posts in our area of operation. We had just finished resupplying and my vehicle commander asked me to get on the radio and tell everyone to mount up,” Newby said. “After making the call, I put my Kevlar on, at that very moment a mortar round struck my vehicle, passing through the roof, off of my Kevlar and out through my door ... then exploding.”
Newby said the next thing he can remember is hearing people screaming and the sounds of more rounds landing all around him. He said he heard his commander telling his fellow Marines that they could ride in their vehicle, and he remembers yelling, “I can still drive.”
He had no idea his Humvee was too damaged to operate.
“After I was taken care of by the corpsman, I went to investigate. It wasn’t until I saw my vehicle that I realized that it was a mortar,” Newby recalled.
When he received his Purple Heart, he said it made him feel sad, because it made him think, “of those who didn’t make it back.”
Newby said on Monday, he plans to reach out to the friends he served with, “to check on them and spend time with my family.”
In 2006, the current Maneuver Support Center of Excellence NCO Academy Commandant, Command Sgt. Maj. Paul DeSanto, was a sergeant first class when he earned his Purple Heart.
He was attached to the 272nd Military Police Company, out of Mannheim, Germany, deployed to the Paktika Province in Afghanistan.
“I was the platoon sergeant for the company while we were in Afghanistan, and we were very busy, running missions almost every day. The morning of June 28, 2006, one of my squad leaders requested some time at the firebase to get some well-deserved rest, to which I agreed.” DeSanto said. “I took his place on a re-supply mission for our firebase. I was the lead vehicle in the convoy for this mission. About halfway through the return trip, as we were traveling back from the forward operating base to our firebase, my vehicle initiated a pressure plate improvised explosive device.”
He said the IED destroyed the front of the vehicle, knocking out the driver, sending shrapnel into the gunner and injuring DeSanto’s leg.
“The IED also knocked out our satellite radio, and we were unable to call for support. Due to the damage to the truck and the lack of communication with higher headquarters, we had to leave the vehicle and blow it in place. Fortunately, all the injuries sustained by the crew were relatively minor and everyone recovered quickly,” DeSanto said.
When he received his Purple Heart, DeSanto said he felt, “a little embarrassed, because I knew people who had suffered much more serious injuries that also got the same Purple Heart.”
“However, one of my mentors pulled me aside and explained the significance and relevance of the Purple Heart. This helped me understand that the award is not for severity of injury, but instead for injuries sustained in combat, regardless of the severity,” DeSanto added.
He said being injured in combat changed his thought process in a very specific way.
“It made me more aware of the fact that we could go away in an instant, and that we should live our life to the fullest. It really opened my eyes. It also showed me that nothing we do in the Army is more important than training for combat. All the other minutia is minor, and there is no reason to get too bent out of shape when things don’t always go the way you want or expect them to,” DeSanto said.
DeSanto said the best way to honor a Purple Heart recipient on Aug. 7 depends on the individual.
“I would say most Purple Heart recipients would prefer nothing extravagant. A small ‘thank you for your service to this great country’ would suffice for most of them, as everything we do in the service is in the service of others,” DeSanto said. “We are not looking for accolades or ceremonies.”
Newby agreed. He said, “a simple thank you and nothing more,” is a good way to honor a Purple Heart recipient.
He said it can be awkward when his Purple Heart is pointed out, and he doesn’t like to have extra attention drawn to it because, “sometimes, it brings up memories we would rather ignore.”
“Honestly, I don’t feel like I did anything special, and I am just happy I got to go home to my family,” Newby said.
Capt. Melissa Bagnall, a behavioral health officer with the Missouri Army National Guard’s 35th Engineer Brigade here, said being a Purple Heart recipient can feel different to each service member and, “it’s important to recognize that these events can bring up painful memories and emotions.”
“Often times, the topic of receiving a Purple Heart is associated with significant grief and loss for the service member and their families. It’s normal for service members to have varying responses to being a Purple Heart recipient. Some may not want to talk about the experience at all, while others may want to talk about it as a way to help others,” Bagnall said.
She said the best way to support Purple Heart recipients is to be, “mindful of the fact that we do not know the details of their experience or the overall impact on their lives. How they choose to talk about their experience is entirely up to them and should be respected.”
On National Purple Heart Day ... and everyday ... Bagnall said, “we can acknowledge the service member, and family’s, sacrifice by validating the difficulty of their experiences and voicing appreciation for what it may have cost them and how those experiences changed their lives.”
“We should exhibit humility by allowing them to lead the conversations, while recognizing that we may never be able to fully understand or appreciate the magnitude of this type of honor,” Bagnall added.
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