The Purple Heart – the Military’s Oldest Decoration

“The Purple Heart is the one military decoration all service men and women try their hardest not to receive.  But if awarded, is highly cherished.  Just looking at the Purple Heart Medal instantly reminds us that from the time of George Washington right up to the present War on Terror, our freedom isn’t free.” – Corporal Evans Kerrigan, USMC (ret.), wounded three time in the Korean War.

General George Washington established the Purple Heart at Newburgh, New York on August 7, 1782 to recognize soldiers for meritorious service during the Revolutionary War.  The award was a cloth “Badge of Military Merit” patch with an embroidered purple heart displayed on the left side of the chest.  It was the first U.S. commendation for common soldiers and is the oldest U.S. military decoration still in use.  At least three soldiers during the Revolution were award the Purple Heart.  Today August 7th is celebrated as Purple Heart Day.

The Purple Heart, however, did not become a medal until February 22, 1932, when on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, General Douglas MacArthur revived the award to recognize soldiers for meritorious service and wounds received in action.  The medal was shaped like a heart, colored by purple enamel with a gold bust of Washington in the center and the Washington coat-of-arms at the top.  On the back, “For Military Merit,” was engraved with space for the recipient’s name.

Initially an Army decoration in the 1930’s, Marine and Navy personnel who were assigned to Army units were also eligible for the Purple Heart.  In 1932, when the medal was first re-established, the soldier had to be alive and personally apply for the award.  Wounded veterans from past wars – including the Civil War, the  Boxer Rebellion, the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, the 1916 Mexican Expedition, and others – applied for and received the Purple Heart.

At the start of WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order declaring that the Purple Heart be awarded to any member of the military (regardless of branch or service) who are “wounded in action against an enemy of the United States, or as a result of an act of such enemy, provided such would necessitate treatment by a medical officer.”  The Legion of Merit, created in 1942, took the place of the Purple Heart Medal as a meritorious award.  The new executive order also awarded the Purple Heart Medal to all military personnel killed in action.

Between 1942 and 1997, civilians serving with the military were also eligible to receive the Purple Heart.  Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart after being killed by Japanese fire on April 18, 1945 on Ie Shima, a small island off Okinawa.

In 1997, the criteria for the Purple Heart was again revised and the medal today is only awarded to military personnel.  Civilians who are killed or wounded as a result of enemy action now receive the Defense of Freedom Medal – the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart Medal created after September 11, 2001.

Purple Hearts Awarded by Conflict (as of 8/21/2008)

  • World War II: 894,409
  • Korea:  136,936
  • Vietnam:  200,676
  • Persian Gulf:  590
  • Afghanistan:  2,743
  • Iraq:  33,923

Adapted from On Patrol, the USO magazine

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