By State Senator Julie Lassa
Recently, the Purple Heart, our nation’s oldest military decoration, has been in the news as part of the presidential campaign. The strong feelings evoked by the incident demonstrate the importance of the Purple Heart in our remembrance of our veterans and America’s military history. Purple Heart Day was celebrated on August 7, which gives us a good opportunity to learn more about this important award.
The candidate in question was quoted as saying he “always wanted a Purple Heart.” In reality, few combat troops really want a Purple Heart, because the only way to get one is to be killed or wounded in battle as a result of combat operations. Our hope for every deployed military man and woman is that they return to us safe and sound. The decoration does, however, serve to honor those who are willing to risk life and limb to defend our liberty, and to remind the rest of us of the sacrifices that have been required to establish the United States as a nation and to keep that nation free.
The decoration that was to evolve into today’s Purple Heart was instituted by General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, in 1782. Originally known as the Badge of Merit, the decoration, distinguished with a purple ribbon, was only conferred by General Washington personally. After the Revolutionary War the Badge of Merit fell into disuse. It was revived again in 1931 by General Douglas MacArthur. The new design featured a purple ribbon and a gold, heart-shaped pendant with a bust of George Washington, the same design it bears today. The new Purple Heart was established by presidential executive order on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth.
Unlike other military awards, one doesn’t receive the Purple Heart by being recommended by a senior officer. Instead, one automatically becomes eligible if one is wounded or killed in combat. Many different kinds of wounds qualify for the Purple Heart, but they must have been received as a result of enemy action and have been treated and recorded by a medical officer.
Traditionally, the Purple Heart has often been awarded immediately on the battlefield or in a nearby hospital. This made proper record keeping a problem. As a result, there is no official tally of the number of American service personnel who have received the decoration, although one estimate holds that nearly two million Purple Hearts were awarded up to 2010. The Military Order of the Purple Heart, Department of Wisconsin, a service organization for Purple Heart veterans and their families, currently has a thousand members, and estimates there may be around 2,000 living Wisconsin veterans who have been decorated with the Purple Heart.
The Military Order of the Purple Heart is a national chapter that provides a chance for decorated veterans to socialize, promote patriotism, and work together to provide service to all military veterans. If you were awarded the Purple Heart and wish to join a local MOPH chapter, go to the national website, purpleheart.org, to learn how to join. When your credentials have been verified, you’ll be directed to your nearest local chapter. There is also an Associate Membership available for spouses, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Purple Heart recipients.
The Purple Heart is more than just another piece of military memorabilia. It is the emblem of the ultimate sacrifice that some warriors made, and that all warriors were willing to make, on behalf of our security and freedom. The gratitude we owe to our military veterans is worthy of the greatest possible respect. In this season when we exercise our right as citizens to engage in self-government, we should remember what we owe to those who fought and died to preserve that right.