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The Real Meaning of the Purple Heart By: Allan Wall
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, July 27, 2005

We hadn't been in Iraq for long when our brigade had its first casualty.

After being called up, our entire National Guard brigade had been in training together in the United States. Upon arrival over here, we were dispersed throughout Iraq to fulfill various missions. We hadn't been in country long when we heard the news. One of our guys had been shot.

Soon after, I was on base one day and encountered the soldier who had been shot. I recognized the surname on his uniform and noticed that he had his arm in a sling. The soldier had been shot in the upper arm by an insurgent, who escaped immediately. The injury was a flesh wound that had not entered the bone. He seemed to be doing well, and on the road to recovery. But that he had shot by an insurgent was a sobering one . A reminder that Iraq is still a dangerous place. Several months later, that was the first in our brigade to receive a Purple Heart, and I attended the ceremony.

The Purple Heart medal bears a likeness of George Washington. There's a reason for that. Like any good officer, General Washington understood the importance of rewarding deserving soldiers. So he would grant them commissions or promotions. In 1782, the Continental Congress ordered him to stop doing this because Congress had run out of money. Seeking new ways to honor meritorious soldiers, Washington established the Badge of Military Merit. This badge was shaped like a heart and was purple, presumably chosen as it was the traditional color of royalty. It was awarded for meritorious service, not necessarily for being wounded in combat. On August 7, 1782, at his headquarters at Newburgh, New York, General Washington wrote an official order authorizing the badge. Here is an excerpt from Washington's document:

The General, ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers as well as foster and encourage every species of military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with due reward. The name and regiment of the persons so certified are to be enrolled in a Book of Merit which shall be kept in the orderly room.

The order also allows recipients of the Purple Heart "to pass all guards and sentinels which officers are permitted to do." Washington's authorization document ends with this sentence, "The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all."

The only known recipients of the original Purple Heart were three sergeants who received it in 1783: Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell, Jr. Presumably there were others, but their names are now lost to history.

The Badge of Military Merit was soon forgotten, and the "Book of Merit" was lost. Even Washington's order authorizing the badge was lost in the War Department archives. (So there's nothing new about paperwork getting lost in the U.S. military.)

It wasn't until the 1920s that Washington's order was rediscovered, and interest was shown in reviving it.

On the bicentennial of Washington's birth -- February 22, 1932 -- the award was revived, now made of medal and known as the Purple Heart. (General Douglas McArthur was Army Chief of Staff at the time). The Purple Heart was offered retroactively to World War I soldiers, and until 1942 was awarded for meritorious service, including but not limited to those wounded in combat.

In 1942, it was designated to be awarded only to to those injured in combat.

For more information on the Purple Heart, check out this article from the VFW magazine and the website of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (an organization open to all recipients of this award).

Which brings me back to Iraq in 2005, where I stood in formation in a ceremony in which the soldier mentioned above received a Purple Heart.

The ceremony was short but dignified. The officials announced that seven members of our larger unit were also eligible, having been wounded. After we were dismissed, I went to congratulate the soldier. There on his chest was the Purple Heart badge, bearing a small profile of General George Washington, who established the award to recognize meritorious service when he could no longer give a cash reward.

The Purple Heart is a reminder of a recognition of the sacrifices faced by our soldiers, of their nobility and courage -- and once again, a reminder that Iraq is still a dangerous place.

Allan Wall (allan39@provalue.net) recently returned to the U.S. after having resided many years in Mexico.

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