- - Sunday, August 6, 2017


When my brother returned from World War II with a Purple Heart decoration as a result of the wounds he sustained in fighting the Nazis in Germany, I was 8 years old. He let me show my friends the decoration and we were awestruck each time with the bright gold medallion. Writing about its origins now as an historian is a singular honor.

The Purple Heart’s origins date to Aug. 7. 1782 in Newburgh, New York, when George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, established the decoration through his general orders:

“The General, ever desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs whenever any singular 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 in instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and in essential service in any way shall meet with a due reward.”

The Continental Congress had prohibited GW from awarding valor through commissions or promotions in rank, but the body had no objections to what would be called the Badge of Military Merit, which extended to its recipients the right to pass all guards and sentinels as could commissioned officers.

Extant records from the Revolutionary War indicate that three Badges were awarded, to Sgt. Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Light Dragoons; Sgt. William Brown, 5th Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line; and Sgt. Daniel Bissell, 2nd Connecticut Regiment of the Connecticut Line. Their names and subsequent recipients were to be inscribed in a Book of Merit.

But the Book was lost, and the Badge of Military Merit lay dormant even through World War I when Gen. John J. Pershing suggested its revival. But his call fell on deaf ears until the Army chief of staff, Gen. Charles P. Summerall, urged Congress in 1927 to take action on the matter.

Again, nothing was done. Summerall’s successor, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, sidestepped Congress and in 1931 urged the War Department to revive the honor in time for the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth on Feb. 22, 1932. The deed would be done on that date, with MacArthur ensuring as well a new design that would incorporate a bust of GW:

“By order of the President of the United States,” read the War Department statement, “the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution is hereby revived out of respect for his memory and military achievements.”

Three months later, on May 28, 1932, in New Windsor, New York, the site of GW’s final encampment during the Revolutionary War where his general orders on the decoration were released, 138 World War I veterans were awarded the first newly-designed Purple Heart. It was an awesome ceremony in a dairy farm field that was about to be converted to new housing. With two men in 69 rows, the recipients marched toward a platform area to receive their medals.

Since that time there have been a total of 10 different clarifications, orders and laws relative to qualifications for the Purple Heart, the latest on Feb. 6, 2015, extending eligibility to developments never anticipated, to wit, wounds or deaths attributable to domestic terrorist activities.

And, in that sense of never anticipated issues, the award is mired in controversy, as illustrated by a Congressional Research Service report of Oct. 14, 2016, titled: “The Purple Heart: Background and Issues for Congress.” It points out that the Department of Defense doesn’t consider service members with post-traumatic stress disorder as eligible for the Purple Heart.

As the report concludes: “service members are divided on this issue. Some members believe that mental injuries such as PTSD should be eligible for the Purple Heart, while others believe that it would dishonor those who have received Purple Hearts for physical injuries.”

These are issues that Congress should consider, the report makes clear, “if it chooses to act.”

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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