(Archive - Week of May 9 - May 15, 2004)

Purple Heart – Oldest American Meritorious Service Medal

After General George Washington's victory over the British at Yorktown , Va. , in Oct. 1781, he had much respect for the common soldier and often observed outstanding valor and merit that they displayed. In 1782, the Continental Congress reported problems with the continuation of fighting the war because no funds were available to pay the soldiers. Washington wrote a General Order on Aug. 7, 1782 . He could not pay them for their service, but he could give them military merits awards.

The Purple Heart, probably this country's most recognizable military decoration, is 221 years old.

General George Washington established the decoration for meritorious action on in August 1782, during the Revolutionary War to reward soldiers for bravery. The original decoration, called the Badge for Military Merit, was a Purple Heart of silk, bound with braid with the word “merit” stitched across the face in silver.

It was intended for both enlisted men and officers. Washington specified that the decoration be award “not only for instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service.” Only three Revolutionary War soldiers earned the citation – Sergeants Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell, Jr.

After the Revolutionary War, no more American soldiers received the Badge of Military Merit. But in 1931 Gen. Douglas MacArthur found Washington 's General Order of 1782 and discovered the accounts of the three men who received the award. MacArthur proposed a new medal for issue on the bicentennial of George Washington's birth. The War Department announced the “new” award on Feb. 22, 1932 .

Army Regulations were revised at about the same time to state: “A wound which necessitates treatment by a medical officer and which is received in action with an enemy, may in the judgment of the commander authorized to make the award be construed as resulting from a singularly meritorious act of essential service.”

At that time the Navy Department did not authorize the issue of the Purple Heart, but Franklin D. Roosevelt amended that by Executive Order on Dec. 3, 1942 , the award was extended to the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard beginning Dec. 6, 1941 .

The new award was announced in 1932 and the government told World War I American soldiers they could exchange their Meritorious Service Citation Certificates for the Purple Heart.

Presidents have made changes through the years. President Harry S. Truman retroactively extended eligibility to the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard to April 5, 1917 , to cover World War I. In 1962 John F. Kennedy extended eligibility “to any civilian national of the United States ” wounded “while serving under competent authority in any capacity with an armed force.”

Army regulations, amended June 20, 1969, state that any “member of the Army who was awarded the Purple Heart for meritorious achievement or service, as opposed to wounds received in action, between Dec. 7, 1941 and Sept. 22, 1943, may apply for award of an appropriate decoration in lieu of the Purple Heart.” Thus the award was restricted to those wounded in action.

In 1984 Ronald Reagan amended that order to include those wounded or killed as a result of “an international terrorist attack.” The government awarded Purple Hearts Medals to military members or next of kin who were wounded or killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 .

There are no records of the first individual who received the revived and redesigned Purple Heart. This revived form is of metal, instead of perishable cloth, made in the shape of a rich purple heart bordered with gold, with a bust of Washington in the center and the Washington Coat-Of-Arms at the top.

The latter is believed to have been the source of the stars and stripes of the American Flag. Intrinsically, the Purple Heart is the world's costliest military decoration – nineteen separate operations are required to make it from the rough heart stamped from bronze to the finished medal, plated with gold and enameled in various colors, suspended from a purple and white ribbon.

We must not forget: They came from all walks of life. They gave all of their tomorrows so we could live in freedom; one nation under God with liberty and justice for all. Here, then is the sacrifice they gave.

American Revolution (1775-1783), 4,435 deaths.

War of 1812 (1812-1815), 2,260 deaths.

Indian Wars (1846-1848), 1,000 deaths.

Mexican War (1846-1848), 1,733 deaths.

Civil War (1861-1865), 140,414 Union deaths and 74,524 Confederate deaths.

Spanish American War (1898-1902), 385 deaths.

World War I (1917-1918), 53,402 deaths.

World War II (1941-1945), 291,556 deaths.

Korean War (1950-1953), 33,686 deaths.

Vietnam War (1964-1976), 58, 410 deaths.

In each war, there were many others who were wounded. A lot of them lost arms and legs. Young 2 nd Lt. Lewis B. Puller, Jr. was one of them.

More than 1.6 million Purple Hearts have been awarded during its history.

“No man who is not willing to bear arms and to fight for his rights can give a good reason why he should be entitled to the privilege of living in a free community.”


It's all right to be scared. We can't help that. But don't be afraid. Ain't nothing out there that is going to hurt you unless it smells that you are afraid – a mean dog will react to that. Without the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men … have lived.


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