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Everything You Need to Know About the Purple Heart Medal

What does a Purple Heart mean?

The answer to that question depends a lot on who is asked. For many military personnel, a Purple Heart is an award that many want to avoid. While it is one of the most honorable awards presented to U.S. military personnel on behalf of the president of the United States, it is an indicator that a person was injured or killed during combat with an enemy of the United States. The circumstances to qualify for the award tend to be precarious.

The Purple Heart is also an award that military personnel are automatically entitled to if they meet the criteria. A wounded or killed service member is not recommended for the award. For military personnel the question, what does a Purple Heart mean, is answered simply. The Purple Heart means that a U.S. military member exposed themselves to harm in service to their nation and in some cases, that service cost them their lives. Within the ranks of the U.S. military, the Purple Heart is revered and respected and for many it is reflective of the values military personnel live each day.

Some military personnel take for granted that most Americans know what the Purple Heart is, or there is an assumption that they should know because of the magnitude of the award. However, a common question amongst civilians is what does a Purple Heart mean?

The first decoration or medal of the U.S. military was created in 1780 by the Continental Congress. It was called the Fidelity Medallion and it was created to recognize three Continental Army soldiers who captured British Army Major John André, the man who had worked with Benedict Arnold to betray the colonies. The Fidelity Medal, also known as the André Capture Medal, was presented to three soldiers who were members of the New York militia. Privates Isaac Van Wart, David Williams and John Paulding all received the award. The Fidelity Medallion was never again awarded and for this reason the Badge of Military Merit, which later became the Purple Heart, is considered the first military medal of the U.S. military. More clearly, it is the oldest U.S. military medal still awarded.

Non-veterans and people unassociated or unfamiliar with the U.S. military might ask what does a Purple Heart mean? The answer is in the country’s history.

In 1782, George Washington designed and created the Badge of Military Merit. Initially the award was to recognize meritorious military service. The decoration would be presented to soldiers who displayed gallantry in battle, but also fidelity in their service. The Badge of Military Merit was an award that was created by Washington for all soldiers and not just for officers who had been victorious in battle. Military protocols in the 1700s recognized officers mostly.

Enlisted soldiers Elijah Churchill, Daniel Bissell and William Brown were the first Continental Army soldiers to receive the Badge of Military Merit for their service in key Revolutionary War battles. But after the colonies earned their independence, the Badge of Military Merit became a dormant award for roughly 150 years.

In 1932, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur decided to breathe new life into the award to help commemorate the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday. MacArthur worked with the War Department and renamed the Badge of Military Merit; it became the Purple Heart because the Badge’s original configuration was a heart-shaped cloth. 

MacArthur helped design the Purple Heart Medal to look as we know it today. The medal has a purple ribbon and a heart-shaped medallion with the bust of Washington in the center. MacArthur would become the first person to receive the modern version of the Purple Heart. Military historians believe he awarded himself the medal retroactively for service in World War I. About 136 World War I veterans also received the initial award.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt refined the rules for the Purple Heart by expanding eligibility of the award to other services and issuing a strict-criteria that the award only be awarded to those wounded or killed in combat. U.S. military members of any rank qualify for the award if they have been wounded or killed in action.

Today, when people ask what does a Purple Heart mean, Americans should know that roughly 1.8 million Purple Heart Medals have been awarded since it was created in 1932. The majority have been presented to men and women who have been wounded or killed in action.

For some U.S. military families, the question what does a Purple Heart mean has a special answer because their family members were either wounded in battle or have been killed in action. For them, August 7, Purple Heart Day in the United States, is a day unlike any other and they take time to pause and reflect on their wounded or killed family members.

The Purple Heart Medal is an award that can be bestowed multiple times to a single individual.

Service members can receive multiple Purple Heart Medals throughout their military careers. U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Albert Ireland was awarded the Purple Heart medal nine times over a 12-year period. He was wounded five times while serving in World War II and then received four additional wounds during the Korean War. Curry T. Haynes, a deceased Army veteran of the Vietnam War earned 10 Purple Hearts, according to the USO, but aside from a news article, the information is unverified.

Haynes received his first Purple Heart after being shot in the arm in an ambush and after surgery in Japan, he returned to his unit which was fighting in the jungles of Vietnam. During one battle, he would be wounded nine times by a variety of enemy weapons. The action cost him two fingers.

What does a Purple Heart mean? After reading this, one word should come to mind. Sacrifice.
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