The Depot

How Is A Purple Heart Earned? A Deep Dive

(The Badge of Military Merit)

The Purple Heart has the distinction of being the American military’s first medal. On August 7, 1782, Gen. George Washington, created the Badge of Military Merit to recognize soldiers who demonstrated “extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.”

Records from that time show that Washington personally awarded the Badge of Military Merit to three non-commissioned officers. After the Revolutionary War, the badge would go dormant, and it would never be awarded again; or at least it would not be awarded as the Badge of Military Merit.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Revolutionary War
When Washington created the award, the criteria to receive it was somewhere between a Good Conduct Medal and a Commendation Medal. A soldier in the Continental Army did not have to receive wounds in battle to receive the Badge of Military Merit. However, they had to be exceptionally loyal to the Army, the country, and perform in an exceptional manner.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: World War I
On the bicentennial of Washington’s birth in 1932, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur decided to resurrect the Badge of Military Merit after 150 years. He minted the Purple Heart Medal to honor Washington’s memory and included a bust of the first president on the medal. MacArthur himself had redesigned the medal into what it is today.

Once the award was approved by the Congress and president, MacArthur announced that World War I veterans who had been wounded were eligible to receive the Purple Heart. MacArthur also received the first Purple Heart to ever be awarded.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: World War II
In December 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order extending applicability of the Purple Heart to all U.S. military services. The award was designated for those wounded or killed as a result of wounds received in action.

(Cordelia Cook)

Although some believe that it wasn’t until the Global War on Terrorism that women started to receive the Purple Heart, Cordelia “Betty” Cook was the first woman to receive the Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat (shrapnel wounds) at a field hospital near the Italian front in World War II. Another nurse at Pearl Harbor received the award during World War II, but not for being wounded. Although wounded, Cook continued to tend to patients in her duties as a nurse. Her actions not only earned her the Purple Heart, but also the Bronze Star Medal.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Korean War
During the Korean War it is estimated that more than 118,000 Purple Hearts were awarded, according to a 2008 news magazine. However, it would be virtually impossible to get an exact number given that some federal military records were destroyed in the 1970s and in other cases, some military records were never updated to reflect the presentation of awards to soldiers.

That said, the criteria of for receiving the Purple Heart remained. A service member had to be wounded or killed by the enemy.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Vietnam War and Vietnam Era
The Vietnam War saw an uptick in awards of the Purple Heart mostly because of the nature of the war. Jungle warfare and guerilla tactics wounded more than 350,000 Americans in Vietnam.

And again, the criteria of being wounded or killed in battle stuck throughout the duration of the conflict. However, the award was amended in 1973 to include U.S. service personnel performing peacekeeping duties overseas.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Beirut
In October 1983, a truck laden with explosives exploded in an attack of peacekeeping forces in Beirut, Lebanon. The attack killed 241 Americans and injured at least 150.

While the numbers are hard to pinpoint, all uniformed service members killed in action were awarded the Purple Heart and all U.S. military personnel who were wounded received the Purple Heart since they were wounded or killed in combat. In addition, as previously mentioned, peacekeeping missions were eligible for consideration since 1973.


(Purple Heart)

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Grenada
Two days after the Beirut bombing of the Marine Corps barracks, the U.S. military launched Operation Urgent Fury, initiated to protect the lives of Americans in the small island nation of Grenada, and to restore the democratic government which had fallen due to a Cuban presence and influence.

The eight-day campaign saw 233 Purple Hearts awarded and the criteria remained the same. A service member had to be killed or wounded by an enemy action during the operation.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Panama
In 1989, the U.S. military invaded Panama in an operation named Just Cause. The op lasted about a month and a half. The objective of the operation was to depose Panamanian leader, Manuel Noriega who was wanted in the United States for various crimes.

Nearly 26,000 personnel deployed. Initial reports state that the U.S. suffered 21 personnel killed in combat, and 306 wounded in action. Those numbers would be revised years later and 229 would be the official number that received the Purple Heart. Once again, the criteria remained. Personnel must have been killed or wounded in combat to earn the Purple Heart.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Persian Gulf War
In January 1991, the U.S. military led a coalition of nations to combat Iraqi forces which had invaded Kuwait. The ground war lasted a little more than a month.

In all, 607 U.S. service members were wounded or killed in action during the Persian Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Storm. Of that, 504 were awarded the Purple Heart using criteria from previous modern wars.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Somalia
The movie Blackhawk Down captures the intensity of the fighting experienced by U.S. forces in Somalia. During the three years that U.S. forces were deployed, a total of 188 personnel earned the Purple Heart.

(A Security Forces airman receives a Purple Heart. Air Force photo.)

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: GWOT
More than 48,000 Purple Heart medals have been awarded in the Global War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and in other locations around the world.

It is important to note that with the GWOT, the U.S. Congress and the president have continued to authorize changes to the eligibility criteria for award of the Purple Heart. Most recently, the Purple Heart’s eligibility included military personnel who suffered traumatic brain injury or concussions.

How Is A Purple Heart Earned: Today
This is straight from the Army’s Human Resources Command website, but truncated in some areas for brevity. It is directly from the regulation that governs the Purple Heart.

The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States and per 10 USC 1131, effective 19 May 1998, is limited to members of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under component authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, has been wounded, was killed, or who has died or may hereafter die of wounds received under any of the following—

  • In any action against an enemy of the United States.
  • In any action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the Armed Forces of the United States are or have been engaged.
  • While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party.
  • As the result of an act of any such enemy of opposing Armed Forces.
  • As the result of an act of any hostile foreign force.

After 28 March 1973, as the result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the United States, recognized as such an attack by the Secretary of Army, or jointly by the Secretaries of the separate armed services concerned if persons from more than one service are wounded in the attack.

After 28 March 1973, as the result of military operations while serving outside the territory of the United States as part of a peacekeeping force.

(An Army soldier receives a Purple Heart. Army photo.)

Servicemembers who are killed or wounded in action by friendly fire. In accordance with 10 USC 1129 for award of the Purple Heart, the Secretary of the Army will treat a member of the Armed Forces as a member who is killed or wounded in action as the result of an act of an enemy of the United States.

A service member described in this subsection is a member who is killed or wounded in action by weapon fire while directly engaged in armed conflict, other than as the result of an act of an enemy of the United States, unless (in the case of a wound) the wound is the result of willful misconduct of the member.

This section applies to members of the Armed Forces who are killed or wounded on or after 7 December 1941. In the case of a member killed or wounded, as described in paragraph 2–8b above, on or after 7 December 1941 and before 30 November 1993, the Secretary of the Army will award the Purple Heart under provisions of paragraph 2–8 in each case which is known to the Secretary before such date or for which an application is made to the Secretary in such manner as the Secretary requires.

Pursuant to 10 USC 1129a, as amended by the Carl Levin and Howard P. "Buck" McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, Section 571, the award of the Purple Heart for service members killed or wounded in attacks by foreign terrorist organizations, the Secretary will treat a service member of the Armed Forces who is killed or wounded as a result of an international terrorist attack against the United States as stated in 2-8b(6).

While clearly an individual decoration, the Purple Heart differs from all other decorations in that an individual is not “recommended” for the decoration; rather he or she is entitled to it upon meeting specific criteria.

Examples of enemy-related injuries which clearly justify award of the Purple Heart are as follows:

  • Injury caused by enemy bullet, shrapnel, or other projectile created by enemy action
  • Injury caused by enemy placed mine or trap
  • Injury caused by enemy released chemical, biological, or nuclear agent
  • Injury caused by vehicle or aircraft accident resulting from enemy fire
  • Concussion injuries caused as a result of enemy generated explosions

Mild traumatic brain injury or concussive severe enough to cause either loss of consciousness or restriction from full duty due to persistent signs, symptoms, or clinical finding, or impaired brain functions for a period greater than 48 hours from the time of the concussive incident.

Clarifying guidance on award of the Purple Heart for concussions. When recommending and considering award of the Purple Heart, the chain of command will ensure the criteria in paragraph 2-8 is met, and that both diagnostic and treatment factors are present and documented in the soldier’s medical record by a medical officer.

Award of the Purple Heart may be made for wounds (including mild traumatic brain injuries and concussive injuries) treated by a medical professional other than a medical officer, provided a medical officer includes a statement in the soldier’s medical record that the extent of the wounds was such that they would have required treatment by a medical officer, if one had been available to treat them.

The statutory time limits pertaining to award of military decorations does not apply to the Purple Heart. The Purple Heart may be awarded at any time after submission of documented proof that criteria have been met.

EDITOR’S NOTE: When compiling this article, The Depot staff excluded hundreds of service members who were injured or killed since 1932 and earned the Purple Heart. Those personnel were killed or wounded by a variety of enemy, on various fronts. In some cases, they were the lone casualty. All casualties are important, but as a matter of space, we could not include them all.

For this article we focused on campaigns that had 100 casualties or more. We mean no disrespect for excluding campaigns and incidents with less than 99 casualties. If you are one of these individuals or know someone who was, please leave a comment with details about your/their Purple Heart and we will publish your comments. 

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