The Purple Heart: How It Has Changed Over Time

Photo: Front and back view of a Purple Heart Medal

Front and back view of a Purple Heart Medal

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Today is Purple Heart Day, when we honor United States military members who received the Purple Heart after being wounded or killed in service to our country.

There are a lot of service medals out there, and sometimes they can get confusing. But did you know the Purple Heart is the only award service members are entitled to (if they meet the requirements, of course) as opposed to being recommended for?

Ohio Rep. Frances Bolton awards the Purple Heart to fellow Ohioan Arthur Cassity during a 1944 trip to England. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Photography Collection

Ohio Rep. Frances Bolton awards the Purple Heart to fellow Ohioan Arthur Cassity during a 1944 trip to England. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Photography Collection

Whether you knew that or not, here are some other some facts about the Purple Heart, which is awarded in the name of the president to any member of the armed services who was wounded, killed or may die of wounds inflicted while serving after April 5, 1917.

Origins: The award was established under Gen. George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782, originally just for the Army. It was called the Badge of Military Merit then and was awarded for “any singularly meritorious action” by enlisted men and noncommissioned officers in the lower ranks.

First recipients: In 1783, three Revolutionary War volunteers were awarded the badge, which was the “figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding.” The names of others who received it were to be kept in a “Book of Merit,” but according to the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, that book has never been recovered.

Forgotten, but not forever: The award was mostly forgotten after the revolution. It wasn’t reinstated until 1932, the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, when War Department Secretary Douglas MacArthur announced it would have a new name — the Purple Heart — as well as a new design and purpose.

New look: The design then became what it is today — a purple enameled heart within a bronze border and a profile of Washington in Continental Army uniform. It includes Washington’s family coat of arms, as well as “For Military Merit” inscribe in the heart, with space for the recipient’s engraved name. The medal is suspended by a vertical purple band with white borders.

Eligibility: This also changed. When the Legion of Merit was created in 1942, the Purple Heart was no longer necessary for meritorious service, so the requirement of being wounded or killed fell into place.

Maj. Gen. Darrell K. Williams (left), commander of the 1st Sustainment Command, pins the Purple Heart on Maj. Charles Diggs (right), 1st TSC Support Operations Distribution Integrations Branch, during a Purple Heart presentation ceremony at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, March 13, 2015. Photo by Maj. Joe Odorizzi, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), 1st TSC-Operational Command Post public affairs officer

Maj. Gen. Darrell K. Williams (left), commander of the 1st Sustainment Command, pins the Purple Heart on Maj. Charles Diggs (right), 1st TSC Support Operations Distribution Integrations Branch, during a Purple Heart presentation ceremony at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, March 13, 2015. Photo by Maj. Joe Odorizzi, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), 1st TSC-Operational Command Post public affairs officer

The Purple Heart was originally only for Army personnel, but after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt extended it to members of all other armed services. He also made the award available posthumously to any service member killed on or after that date (Dec. 7, 1942). President Harry Truman furthered that in 1952 by making it retroactive to April 5, 1917, so service members from World War I would be eligible.

POWs included: Prisoners of war have been eligible to receive the Purple Heart since 1962, but for many decades, that policy wasn’t retroactive, meaning wounded vets in conflicts prior to that date weren’t eligible. The National Defense Authorization Act changed that in 1996, giving World War II and Korean War vets a chance to apply, as long as they had supporting documentation, such as copies of their repatriation medical reports or a witness statement.

The Purple Heart, which is the oldest U.S. military award given to its members, is ranked behind the Bronze Star in order of precedence. ¬†Because consistent records have not been kept since the medal was established, it’s hard to tell how many people have been awarded it; however, the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor estimates that 1.8 million service members are recipients.

So now you’re up on the history. ¬†If you know someone who has earned a Purple Heart, whether they’re still with us or not, make sure to send them a big “thank you” today. They certainly earned it!

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