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. 

Purple Heart Recipients: 8 Men Who Earned the Most Purple Hearts

The Purple Heart is the American military’s oldest award dating back to the Revolutionary War. George Washington himself designed it, however, it was called the Badge of Military Merit. The badge was presented only a few times and the award went dormant until the 1900s. Gen. Douglas MacArthur eventually revived the award and created what we know today as the Purple Heart.  He is also one of the first Purple Heart recipients.

The Purple Heart is one of those military awards that most military members would be proud to receive, however, it isn’t an award anyone in uniform necessarily wants, because to receive it, an individual must be wounded or killed.

Most in the ranks consider themselves lucky if they become one of the millions of Purple Heart recipients that have been presented the medal and survived, but there are a handful of men who have been wounded in battle so many times, that they are well-known within the military culture as some of the toughest men to have ever worn the uniform.

In all, there is only one of these Purple Heart recipients that stands out with the most awards of the Purple Heart medal. The other seven Purple Heart recipients are tied with eight awards each.

1. Staff Sgt. Albert L. Ireland
U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Albert Ireland is the U.S. service member awarded the most Purple Hearts not just in the Marine Corps, but in all U.S. military branches. Having served in World War II and later in the Korean War, Ireland was wounded in action nine times.

He is likely the most famous of Purple Heart recipients having served in the Pacific Theater during World War II. There, while serving as a machine gunner, he was wounded in combat five times. After WWII, he remained in the Marine Corps Reserve and was called back to service for the Korean War. Initially, regulations prevented him from serving in the war since he had been wounded more than twice, but Ireland applied for a waiver and received it.

He fought in Korea and went on to receive four more Purple Heart medals. His final injuries forced him out of military service. He went on to serve as a firefighter and died in 1997.

2. Lt. Col. Richard J. Buck
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Richard Buck was freshly graduated from West Point when he shipped to Korea in 1951. In the Korean War, Buck was wounded four times, earning four Purple Heart medals. He also earned the Combat Infantry Badge, a Silver Star for distinguished gallantry in action and three Bronze Star medals for distinguished heroism against an enemy.

However, like many on this list of Purple Heart recipients, he was not done. After the Korean War, Buck earned a graduate degree at Yale, bounced around in some high-level assignments and eventually found himself joining Special Forces. He then headed to Vietnam.

While in Vietnam, Buck was wounded four more times, bringing his Purple Heart total to eight. He also earned his second Silver Star for distinguished gallantry in action; four additional Bronze Star Medals (two for valor) for distinguished heroism against an enemy; four Air Medals for meritorious achievement beyond that normally expected, while participating in aerial flight; and the Army Commendation Medal for distinguished service. Buck retired in 1970. He died in 1989.

3. Maj. Gen. Robert T. Frederick
U.S. Army Major General Robert Frederick has the distinction of being the only general officer on this distinguished list of Purple Heart recipients. He was a founding member of the 1st Special Service Force in World War II, a unit in which he fought with in Italy, the Aleutian Islands, and North Africa.

Like many Purple Heart recipients from WWII, Frederick saw his fair share of combat with the 1st Special Service Force, and he was wounded several times. While fighting at Anzio he was wounded twice the same day. By the end of WWII, Frederick had received eight Purple Hearts, two Distinguished Service Crosses, and a Silver Star. He retired in 1952 and died in 1970.

In 1968, the movie, The Devil’s Brigade, was released. The actor William Holden played Frederick who was the unit’s commander. Frederick is considered by some to be the last general to actually fight in combat.

4. Col. David H. Hackworth
U.S. Army Colonel David Hackworth, affectionately known as “Hack,” was considered at one point in time the most decorated military veteran alive. He was also outspoken, and loved by most Joes, but he got mixed reviews from officers. He is best known for his epic book, About Face.

Hackworth came up the ranks the hard way. He was a battlefield commissioned officer having served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. During the Korean War, Hack was awarded three Purple Heart medals.

He is on this list of Purple Heart recipients because after Korea, he returned to combat years later when he deployed to Vietnam. Like Korea, he served multiple tours in Vietnam. He would go on to earn another five Purple Heart medals, brining his total to eight Purple Hearts.

Hack is the only service member to ever be awarded the most Silver Stars; ten.

5. Capt. Joe Hooper
Hooper enlisted in the United States Navy in December 1956. After graduation from boot camp, he served aboard the USS Wasp and USS Hancock. He was honorably discharged in 1959 and about a year later he enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantryman in 1960.

Hooper spent time in Korea and Panama before making his way to Vietnam. Eventually he deployed with the 101st Airborne Division and in 1968, Hooper’s heroic actions outside of Hue earned him the Medal of Honor and one of his first Purple Heart medals.

During his second tour in Vietnam, Hooper received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant, and he would go on to earn seven more Purple Heart medals, along with two Silver Stars, six Bronze Star medals for valor, and the Combat Infantryman Badge. He is credited with 115 enemy killed in ground combat, 22 of which occurred in the battle that earned him the Medal of Honor. He became one of the most-decorated soldiers in the Vietnam War. He died in 1979.

6. Col. Robert L. Howard
Howard is one of four officers on this list to be promoted to the officer ranks directly from the enlisted ranks. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1956 and eventually found his way into Special Forces.

In 1967 Howard was assigned to Military Assistance Command, Vietnam – Studies and Observations Group in Vietnam. He spent four and a half years serving in Vietnam. He earned a Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross during those years.

In 1968, he earned the Medal of Honor and his first Purple Heart medal. He would get wounded seven more times before leaving Vietnam. He retired as a colonel in 1992. He died in 2009 in Waco, Texas.

7. Col. William L. Russell
Russell is the only National Guardsman on this Purple Hearts recipients list. He enlisted in the 153rd Infantry Regiment of the Arkansas National Guard during World War II and like others on this Purple Heart recipients list, he was the recipient of a direct commission.

During his time with the 83rd Infantry Division during World War II, Russell earned a Silver Star and was wounded eight times. After WWII, he returned to Arkansas, but was called up to participate in the Korean War. He retired from the military in 1965 as a colonel. He died in 2000.

8. Sgt. Maj. William Waugh
The second of two enlisted men on this Purple Heart recipients list, Waugh joined the U.S. Army in 1948 and eventually joined the special forces. He deployed to Vietnam in 1961 and went on to earn the Silver Star and his sixth Purple Heart.

Waugh retired in 1972, wounded twice more bringing his Purple Heart medal count to eight. He would continue his government service after his military retirement and he worked for the CIA, including a stint in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom at the age of 71.

Book Chronicles Purple Heart Recipients of WWII

Among U.S. Navy Commander David Schwind’s personal collection is a small box containing a Purple Heart medal posthumously awarded to U.S. Army Air Forces Lt. William Hatton, pilot of the B-24D Liberator Lady Be Good, which disappeared without a trace in the Libyan Desert April 4, 1943 while on its first combat mission.

“I had known about the story of the Lady Be Good since I was a kid and the story itself always fascinated me,” Schwind said. “And I just happened to get really lucky and happened to acquire the pilot’s purple heart in my personal collection and so obviously I had to write about it because this is one of the stories I grew up with. It really struck a chord with me through most of my life.”

The story of the Lady Be Good and her pilot and crew are among more than 300 profiles of military members from all branches of service in Schwind’s most recent book, Sacrifice Remembered: Posthumous Awards of the Purple Heart Medal in the Second World War.

The result of two years of research, Schwind brings together the stories of service members from the Army, Army Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Public Health Service, along with detailed color photos of their medals and accompanying documents to create the most complete reference book available on the Purple Heart and all U.S. valor medals of World War II.

Sacrifices Remembered Book Cover with image of Purple Heart Medal 

“There are a lot of variations of Purple Hearts, and they range from whether it’s a Navy Purple Heart made by the U.S. Mint and engraved in a certain style or whether its is a Purple Heart made for the Army under contract by The Robbins Company of Massachusetts,” Schwind said. “Finding out how they were manufactured, and the different styles really raises the level of appreciation for the actual object. I like to make books that are the most value added possible, so I also included all the rest of the person’s medals earned, which means there are also up close and personal pictures of Medals of Honor, Silver Stars, Distinguished Service Crosses, Navy Crosses and more.”

Available on Amazon and through publisher Medals Press, the 593-page book is divided into five parts, including an introduction detailing the origin and history of the Purple Heart and thirteen chapters profiling awards by branch, theater, and battle, with separate chapters on awards to fallen prisoners of war, families that lost multiple children and non-Purple Heart posthumous awards of valor. The final chapter details the casualty process to notification of next of kin and contains photographs never previously published. Four appendices tailored for collectors, historians and researchers address Purple Heart award boxes and shipping containers, Purple Heart types and engraving styles, information on researching the history of Purple Hearts and one appendix lists the 14,379 known, traceable and identifiable numbered Purple Hearts. The remaining pages include bibliography, references and index.

picture of pages inside the book with Medal of Honor and Purple Heart Medal on them.

“You don’t have to have earned a Purple Heart or to have even served in the military to really appreciate what it represents, the sacrifice that it represents,” Schwind said. “I wanted to convey those thoughts through the book and particularly to people who are collectors or historians who weren’t people who have served in the military. That’s really 85 to 90 percent of why I wrote the book, to say this medal that you’re holding in your hand is not just a collector’s item, this represents a person and the sacrifices they made for our country; to really convey the depth of what it represents and in particular the posthumous Purple Heart and what it meant as far as being the last tangible reminder of someone’s life on earth.”

In the course of his research, Schwind conducted interviews and photographed more than 1,700 Purple Hearts held by museums, historians and collectors and Gold Star families.

“As a historian, it was really amazing,” Schwind said. “Being able to go and share with the families the stories of what their family member had done during the war, what they had done to earn these awards, that was the emotional part of it. A number of times families teared up… the stories had been lost and I was able to convey to the families that what their family member did was literally heroic and, in some cases, it put a new respect for their dad’s, uncle’s or grandfather’s lives. That to me was worth everything I invested in writing the book.”

Book page with Purple Heart Medal and Air Force Cross Medal

Retiring from the Navy in Norfolk on April 30, Schwind is currently working on a companion volume on posthumous Purple Heart Medals awarded post-Second World War.

“I honestly had enough Purple Hearts from the Second World War to do several volumes just from the Second World War, but it’s one of those things where time and money and everything else competes,” Schwind said. “That was tough because there were some really good stories that I wanted to include and unfortunately I just didn’t have room for them.

“Then what I decided to do was a second volume with the stories of men and women who have given their lives for our country from the Korean War all the way to the current Global War on Terror with Afghanistan, Iraq and quite a few in-between.” 

Book page with both sides of the Purple Heart Medal.

The in-person interviews with recently bereaved families are the most poignant, Schwind said.

“The amount of emotion that goes with those is something that you just can’t effectively convey,” Schwind said. “I’ve talked to a lot of families and I‘ve seen a lot of tears. They’ve been telling me the story of their loved one and it’s made me have an even deeper appreciation for what I’m writing about and made me want to honor them even more. It really drives home the importance of what the medal represents.”

DK McDonald is an award-winning Arizona-based writer. She comes from a multi-generational military family, spanning all branches of service. She is also a former Army spouse.

What Does A Purple Heart Mean? 5 Facts You Didn't Know

Old cloth patch of a heart with MERIT written across it.

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.

Here are five facts you probably didn't know about the Purple Heart that might help you answer the question, what does a Purple Heart mean?

1. Automatic Entitlement
The Purple Heart is 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 much like a medal presented for achievement. 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? Let's look into the medal's background.

2. U.S. Military's First Medal
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.

3. Designed by Washington
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. There were no real answers when someone asked what does a Purple Heart mean because the award was all but obsolete.

4. MacArthur Revived the Medal
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. What does a Purple Heart mean to those WWI veterans? That their sacrifices and the physical harm they endured for the nation was recognized.

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.

5. Millions have earned the medal
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.

History of U.S. Military Medals

andre capture medal

In the U.S. military, the history of awards and decorations is, for the most part, not really something that is taught or handed down as a historical legacy. While military medals have an important role in the U.S. military, the history of how military medals became a part of the U.S. military culture is rarely discussed. That said, here’s what we’ve dug up.

A medal is normally metal that is struck with a design to commemorate an event. They are created using various methods, but these days most are done using pressured machines. In the past, bronze, silver and gold were used. Today, most military medals are made of metal alloys.

Antonio di Puccio Pisano, also known more commonly as Pisanello, is known widely as the inventor of the medal as we know it today. Pisano’s first medal, made in 1438, commemorated the visit to Italy of Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaeologus. Pisanello’s medals were small reliefs or portraits and according to historians, they were given out to nobility. Pisanello’s medal-making process stayed in Italy until around the 16th Century and then it spread to neighboring countries in Europe.

While it is subject to debate, the historian Titus Flavius Josephus wrote that Alexander the Great presented a button-like award to one of his military leaders which could mark the first military medal ever presented. And the Romans also used coin-like medallions to recognize military participation, effort and achievement and some of those medallions adorned Roman warriors as jewelry. Roman soldiers decorated themselves with medallions known as phalera. The phalerae that had been awarded to them represented the campaigns in which they had fought.

Similarly, according to an article published by the U.S. Navy, the Egyptians had the Order of the Golden Fly, a golden necklace decorated with flies to signify themselves as a pestilence to the enemy. During the Middle Ages, the jewelry presented for military achievement evolved into a pendant-like item, shaped like a disc. Known as a bracteate, this thin medal included loops that made them easy to wear. One of these, the Liuhard medalet, was struck in 6th Century CE.

In the 16th Century, medals were struck by rulers to commemorate specific events, including military battles and more specifically, military victories. The wider use of military medals was on the rise and the roots of our current military award system grew from this era. Specifically, combatants were presented with tokens from those who had sent them into harm’s way, but it should come as no surprise to anyone in the ranks that the bulk of the appreciation was poured on high-ranking military leaders.

Fast forward to the 13 colonies. Many in the U.S. military ranks incorrectly believe that the first U.S. military medal was the Badge of Military Merit which was created in 1782 and eventually became the Purple Heart. However, the oldest U.S. military medal is in fact the Fidelity Medallion which was created by the Continental Congress in 1780 and presented to those 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 is considered the first military medal of the U.S. military.

It is worth noting though that the Continental Congress had voted to present General George Washington, General Horatio Gates and Captain John Paul Jones with gold medallions for their national contributions in defeat of the British, however, the recognition would not be bestowed until 1790 after Washington was president. So the first-ever U.S. military medals were presented to Army privates and not high-ranking officers.

And while those who have served understand the difference, it is important to note that many in the civilian sector make no differentiation between awards and decorations. Yet they are two vastly different things. A decoration is usually earned for specific acts of bravery or achievement. An award or service medal is usually presented for service in a particular role or for service in a particular geographical area during a specific period of time.

For example, a military member who served as part of the COVID-19 response is eligible to wear the Armed Forces Service Medal or the Humanitarian Service Medal see (Depot Blog article). A soldier who deployed to Iraq is authorized to wear the Iraqi Campaign Medal and a soldier who has deployed to Afghanistan is authorized to wear the Afghanistan Campaign Medal, much like the Vietnam Service Medal is awarded for service in the geographical theater areas of Vietnam. These awards are earned by participation in a specific operation, like the Southwest Asia Service Medal for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

One of the lesser known and early “service medals” is the Légion d’honneu which was created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to recognize meritorious service. The award has since evolved into being one of France’s highest honors, but when Bonaparte created it, the award was inclusive and awarded to all ranks. Bonaparte recognized that these awards had a positive impact on the morale of his soldiers. They were, however, normally restricted for wear in formal uniforms. Bonaparte’s soldiers, in keeping with practices established by the Crusaders hundreds of years earlier, wore their awards over their left breast near the heart. The left side is also the shield side where swords were normally worn to be drawn with the right hand, shields protected not only the heart, but the awards.

Decorations are presented to the individual for gallantry, meritorious service or achievement. For example, a private can earn an Army Achievement Medal for being an exceptional soldier. A sailor can develop a new maintenance widget on a ship that saves the Navy millions of dollars per year and earn a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal. A Marine can fight like a lion in a firefight while deployed and earn a Silver Star for gallantry. The point is, there are some awards that are given to everyone for being a part of an event (commemorating an event) and there are some medals presented to the individual for a job well done.

The one thing we know for sure is the military medals system of the U.S. military is imperfect. It is a system where some argue that awards like the Bronze Star Medal, Air Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Legion of Merit and other military medals are given out too liberally to those who are closer to the flag pole and those who are out executing the mission and putting themselves at greater risk earn military medals of lesser impact. Opinions vary on the efficacy of the U.S. military medals system, but one thing is definite.

It was George Washington’s establishment of the Badge of Military Merit in 1782 that truly ushered in the use of U.S. military medals and created a military medals system for gallantry, fidelity and service. In 1932, Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur revived the dormant Badge of Military Merit and the Purple Heart was established by order of the president with Washington’s likeness in the center of the medal and the words “For Military Merit” stamped on the reverse side of the medal, a tip of the hat to the award’s original roots.