May 27, 2002
-- It's an award of extreme honor that people pray they won't receive.
The Purple Heart is presented to members of the U.S. military who have sustained injuries or have been killed in conflict with an armed enemy. It is intended, in part, to honor those whose sacrifices for the benefit of our country might not otherwise be noted on the large-scale canvas of military history.
But as Morning Edition
host Bob Edwards
reports, it wasn't always that way. As part of the Present at the Creation
series, NPR looks at the award's evolution since the time of its inception, in a lifespan almost as long as the country whose soldiers it honors.
The genesis of the medal can be located in the waning days of the Revolutionary War, sprung from the mind of one of our country's greatest military leaders -- and first president.
Gen. George Washington felt that recognition was needed for soldiers whose significant contributions helped to forward the cause, but the Continental Congress was hesitant to hand out more money for promotions. So Washington initiated the Badge of Military Merit, and allowed for it to be presented to any soldier -- including enlisted men -- whose wartime conduct deserved distinction.
Washington also came up with the design for the Badge, specifying that it should be in the shape of a heart, and colored purple.
Historian Tom Hughes, of the Washington Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, N.Y., says that the reasons for the choice in color aren't clear. But purple is a traditional designation of royalty and rank.
"It was a revolutionary thing to do," Hughes says, "because it had been centuries since armies in Europe had made any award available for enlisted men to qualify."
As far as the records show, only three soldiers were awarded the Badge of Military Merit at its first presentation in 1783: Sgts. Elijah Churchill, William Brown, and Daniel Bissell Jr. After the Revolutionary War ended, the award was abandoned. Hughes speculates that later generals may have felt uncomfortable presenting an award so linked to the legacy of one of America's forefathers.
In 1932 the connection to that legacy was revived. President Herbert Hoover had decided to honor the bicentennial of Washington's birth, and instructed Gen. Douglas MacArthur to re-introduce the Badge of Military Merit.
After turning the badge into a medal, MacArthur stuck with the original design and color. But he made one significant change.
Deciding that those wounded or killed in the line of duty were worthy of an award of merit, he altered the criteria to include the combat wounded and made the honor retroactive to World War I. Having been injured in battle, MacArthur received the first Purple Heart medal.
Since then, over 800,000 Purple Heart medals have been awarded, some in formal ceremonies, others as intimate as a medal pinned to a hospital gown. The qualifications have expanded during that time as well, to include injuries to servicemen and women from terrorist attacks, friendly fire and from being part of a peacekeeping force.
Lt. Col. Marilyn Wills was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained on Sept. 11. Wills, who reported for duty at the Pentagon that morning, suffered smoke inhalation, constricted biceps, and burns on her face, arms, back and legs.
Ruloff F. Kip Jr. received his Purple Heart last week in New York City, 57 years after he was injured when a German submarine's torpedo slammed into his ship, the USS Frederick C. Davis, and sank it in the Atlantic. After the ceremony aboard the USS Intrepid, Kip expressed his happiness to be able to accept the award in person.
Butch Joeckel lost both his legs from the knees down during combat in Vietnam in 1968. Like many others who have received the medal, he has come closer to death -- both his own, and that of people close to him -- than many can even imagine. Today, Joeckel is a lobbyist for veterans' issues.
"My whole career has been trying to help people get beyond that particular thing," he says, noting that only in the past year has he begun to tell his family his own war stories. "Whatever they saw in Vietnam, whatever they saw in whatever war…. War is a horrible, horrible thing."
Hughes, the historian, notes that the proximity of these soldiers to these horrors often prompts them to speak out for avoiding war. But he says that they also tell us "what we almost don't want to know about the great sacrifices that we need to know. All generations of Americans need to understand exactly what costs were paid in order to protect freedoms and American values over centuries."
Previous NPR Coverage
Listen to Bob Edwards' report on the Medal of Honor
Visit the Military Order of the Purple Heart
Read a history
of the Purple Heart.
Read about George Washington and the Badge of Military Merit
, the precusor to the Purple Heart.
Learn more about the Purple Heart
Review detailed criteria
for awarding the Purple Heart.