The Purple Heart's History
by Air National Guard Alyssa Fragano
August 12, 2021
The oldest known military decoration still being awarded today is the Cross of St. George, established by the Russian Federation in 1769.
The second-oldest is the United States’ Purple Heart by way of its predecessor, the Badge of Military Merit.
Established by order of then Gen. George Washington on August 7, 1782, the Badge of Military Merit was created as a decoration for Army Soldiers who exhibited "not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way". Designed by Washington himself, the Badge of Military Merit took the form of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding.
After the Revolutionary War, the Badge of Military Merit fell into disuse. Efforts toward its revival began in 1927, and in 1932 it received an official successor: the Purple Heart.
On February 22, 1932 and by Executive Order of President Herbert Hoover, the Purple Heart was revived on the 200th Anniversary of George Washington's birth. The new design features Washington’s profile, and the decoration was awarded both for wounds received in action against the enemy and for meritorious performance of duty. In 1942, the latter facet was discontinued with the establishment of the Legion of Merit.
As recognition for merit has changed over time, so has that for injury; the Army Wound Ribbon was created in 1917 to recognize Army Soldiers who had received combat wounds during World War I. This was replaced by the Wound Chevron in 1918, to be issued to any personnel (regardless of branch) wounded in combat. Upon the creation of the Purple Heart, Army Soldiers were permitted to exchange these wound chevrons for the new Purple Heart medal. This -- alongside standard criteria to be eligible for a Purple Heart -- was extended to include personnel from all branches by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942.
Currently, the Purple Heart can be awarded to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after April 5, 1917, has been wounded or killed. It is ranked immediately behind the bronze star and ahead of the Defense Meritorious Service Medal in order of precedence. The criteria that dictates who is eligible to receive a Purple Heart is ever-changing, sometimes as a direct result of current events:
In 1942, eligibility was extended to include non-military personnel and posthumous awarding of the Purple Heart. The change was retroactive to December 6, 1941 to allow for recipients involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor. As of 1997, such non-military recipients have since been prohibited.
Following a lapse of time where no recognition was available, the Secretary of Defense Medal for the Defense of Freedom was created in 2001 as the civilian equivalent of the military's Purple Heart. Its creation followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Department of Defense civilian employees or non-Defense personnel involved in DoD activities who are killed or wounded by hostile action are eligible for this award.
In 1962, provisions were added to allow for any person wounded or killed "while serving with friendly foreign forces" or "as a result of action by a hostile foreign force" to be awarded a Purple Heart. The United States was not formally a participant of the Vietnam War (and wouldn't be until 1965), leaving no "enemy" to satisfy the prior stipulation that the recognized wound or death be received "in action against an enemy".
As the decoration was initially exclusive to Army Soldiers and amendments weren’t always applicable to all personnel, new executive orders and public laws have been put into place to make it more inclusive of all six service branches. In these cases, steps were taken to retroactively make eligibility equal in terms of the circumstances and timeframe in which recipients can qualify for a Purple Heart. Beyond this, disagreements over what warrants recognition have caused the criteria to become increasingly specific to avoid case-by-case decisions:
Frostbite was “never a qualifying reason for receiving the Purple Heart”, and a regulation issued by the Navy in 1951 clarifies this. Medals given because of frostbite were “erroneously given”.
Beginning in 1984, the Purple Heart could be awarded to any person wounded or killed as a result of terrorism, or while serving as part of a peacekeeping force.
In 1989, the Purple Heart was awarded to a Soldier who suffered heat stroke. The outcry from veterans’ groups led the Army to exclude heat stroke as eligible injury.
Beginning in 1993, the Purple Heart could be awarded to any person wounded or killed as a result of "friendly fire", so long as the injury is sustained while engaged in armed conflict and is not caused by willful misconduct.
In 1996, the Purple Heart became eligible to POWs wounded during capture or captivity prior to April 25, 1962; after this date the Purple Heart had previously been awarded on a case-by-case basis. In 2008 eligibility was extended to POWs who (after December 7, 1941) subsequently die in captivity.
Post-traumatic stress disorders in and of themselves do not make service members eligible for the Purple Heart. In 2009 the DoD explained, “it is not a wound intentionally caused by the enemy from an ‘outside force or agent,’ but is a secondary effect caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.”
In 2014, The Purple Heart became eligible to personnel wounded or killed by certain kinds of domestic terrorist activities. The language that qualifies eligibility for personnel injured as a result of a “foreign terrorist organization” to include perpetrators who are “in communication with the foreign terrorist organization before the attack" and attacks “inspired or motivated by the foreign terrorist organization.”
With 10 each, three Soldiers hold the record for most Purple Hearts: Pfc. Charles D. Barger, Maj. William G."Bill" White and Curry T. Haynes. Following the initial medal, additional awards of the Purple Heart are denoted by oak leaf clusters in the Army, Air Force and Space Force, and 5⁄16 inch stars in the Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
Other notable recipients include then Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy, the only U.S. president to have received the Purple Heart; Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, the first pilot in history confirmed to have exceeded the speed of sound in level flight; Pvt. Rod Serling, Twilight Zone narrator who served for three years during World War II; Cmdr. John Ford, six-time Academy Award winning director who served for three years active-duty during WWII; Chips, a trained sentry dog that served during WWII; and Staff Sgt. Reckless, a horse that served in numerous combat actions during the Korean War and was subsequently awarded two Purple Hearts.
As of 2020, an estimated 1.8 million Purple Hearts had been awarded to U.S. troops.
The website Recognize the Sacrifice was founded in 2009 to help Army Soldiers apply for the Purple Heart. Some information is specific to Soldiers, but the website is a useful tool for any service member who plans to apply. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Military Benefits both detail the benefits of being recognized with the Purple Heart, such as being exempt from co-payments for VA hospital/medical outpatient care and being placed in VA’s enrollment priority group 3.
August 7th is recognized annually as "National Purple Heart Day."
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