The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded in the name of the President to those who have been wounded or killed while serving on or after April 5, 1917 with the U.S. military. With its forerunner, the Badge of Military Merit, which took the form of a heart made of purple cloth, the Purple Heart is the oldest award that is still given to members of the U.S. military, the only earlier award being the obsolete Fidelity Medallion. The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is located in New Windsor, New York.
The original Purple Heart, designated as the Badge of Military Merit, was established by George Washington—then the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army – by order from his Newburgh, New York headquarters on August 7, 1782. The Badge of Military Merit was only awarded to three Revolutionary War soldiers and from then on as its legend grew, so did its appearance. Although never abolished, the award of the badge was not proposed again officially until after World War I.
On October 10, 1927, Army Chief of Staff General Charles Pelot Summerall directed that a draft bill be sent to Congress “to revive the Badge of Military Merit”. The bill was withdrawn and action on the case ceased on January 3, 1928, but the office of the Adjutant General was instructed to file all materials collected for possible future use. A number of private interests sought to have the medal reinstituted in the Army. One of these was the board of directors of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum in Ticonderoga, New York.
On January 7, 1931, Summerall’s successor, General Douglas MacArthur, confidentially reopened work on a new design, involving the Washington Commission of Fine Arts. This new design was issued on the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth. Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist in the Office of the Quartermaster General, was named to redesign the newly revived medal, which became known as the Purple Heart. Using general specifications provided to her, Will created the design sketch for the present medal of the Purple Heart. Her obituary, in the February 8, 1975 edition of The Washington Post newspaper, reflects her many contributions to military heraldry.
The Commission of Fine Arts solicited plaster models from three leading sculptors for the medal, selecting that of John R. Sinnock of the Philadelphia Mint in May 1931. By Executive Order of the President of the United States, the Purple Heart was revived on the 200th Anniversary of George Washington’s birth, out of respect to his memory and military achievements, by War Department General Orders No. 3, dated February 22, 1932. The Purple Heart award is a heart-shaped medal within a gold border, 1 ⅜ inches (35 mm) wide, containing a profile of General George Washington. Above the heart appears a shield of the coat of arms of George Washington (a white shield with two red bars and three red stars in chief) between sprays of green leaves. The reverse consists of a raised bronze heart with the words FOR MILITARY MERIT below the coat of arms and leaves. The ribbon is 1 and ⅜ inches (35 mm) wide and consists of the following stripes: ⅛ inch (3 mm) white 67101; 1 ⅛ inches (29 mm) purple 67115; and ⅛ inch (3 mm) white 67101. Additional awards of the Purple Heart are denoted by oak leaf clusters (U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force) and by gold 5/16 inch stars (U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and U.S. Coast Guard).
The criteria were announced in a War Department circular dated February 22, 1932 and authorized award to soldiers, upon their request, who had been awarded the Meritorious Service Citation Certificate, Army Wound Ribbon, or were authorized to wear Wound Chevrons subsequent to April 5, 1917, the day before the United States entered World War I. The first Purple Heart was awarded to MacArthur. During the early period of American involvement in World War II (December 7, 1941 – September 22, 1943), the Purple Heart was awarded both for wounds received in action against the enemy and for meritorious performance of duty. With the establishment of the Legion of Merit, by an Act of Congress, the practice of awarding the Purple Heart for meritorious service was discontinued. By Executive Order 9277, dated December 3, 1942, the decoration was extended to be applicable to all services and the order required that regulations of the Services be uniform in application as far as practicable. This executive order also authorized the award only for wounds received. AR 600-45, dated September 22, 1943, and May 3, 1944 identify circumstances required to meet in order to be eligible for the Purple Heart for military and civilian personnel during World War II era.
Executive Order 10409, dated February 12, 1952, revised authorizations to include the Service Secretaries subject to approval of the Secretary of Defense. Executive Order 11016, dated April 25, 1962, included provisions for posthumous award of the Purple Heart. Executive Order 12464, dated February 23, 1984, authorized award of the Purple Heart as a result of terrorist attacks or while serving as part of a peacekeeping force subsequent to March 28, 1973.
The Senate approved an amendment to the 1985 Defense Authorization Bill on June 13, 1985 which changed the precedence from immediately above the Good Conduct Medal to immediately above the Meritorious Service Medals. Public Law 99-145 authorized the award for wounds received as a result of friendly fire. Public Law 104-106 expanded the eligibility date, authorizing award of the Purple Heart to a former prisoner of war who was wounded before April 25, 1962. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1998 (Public Law 105-85) changed the criteria to delete authorization for award of the Purple Heart to any civilian national of the United States while serving under competent authority in any capacity with the Armed Forces. This change was effective May 18, 1998.
During World War II, nearly 500,000 Purple Heart medals were manufactured in anticipation of the estimated casualties resulting from the planned Allied invasion of Japan. To the present date, total combined American military casualties of the sixty-five years following the end of World War II—including the Korean and Vietnam Wars—have not exceeded that number. In 2003, there were still 120,000 of these Purple Heart medals in stock. There are so many in surplus that combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan are able to keep Purple Hearts on-hand for immediate award to wounded soldiers in the field.
The “History” section of the November 2009 edition of National Geographic estimated the number of purple hearts given as below. Above the estimates, the text reads, “Any tally of Purple Hearts is an estimate. Awards are often given during conflict; records aren’t always exact” (page 33).
World War I: 320,518
World War II: 1,076,245
Korean War: 118,650
Vietnam War: 351,794
Persian Gulf War: 607
Afghanistan War: 7,027 (as of 5 June 2010)
Iraq War: 35,321 (as of 5 June 2010)
The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after April 5, 1917, has been wounded or killed. Specific examples of services which warrant the Purple Heart include any action against an enemy of the United States; 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 a result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed forces; or as the result of an act of any hostile foreign force. After 28 March 1973, as a 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 the 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 a result of military operations while serving outside the territory of the United States as part of a peacekeeping force.
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. A Purple Heart is authorized for the first wound suffered under conditions indicated above, but for each subsequent award an oak leaf cluster is awarded. Not more than one award will be made for more than one wound or injury received at the same instant. A “wound” is defined as an injury to any part of the body from an outside force or agent sustained under one or more of the conditions listed above. A physical lesion is not required; however, the wound for which the award is made must have required treatment by a medical officer and records of medical treatment for wounds or injuries received in action must have been made a matter of official record. When contemplating an award of this decoration, the key issue that commanders must take into consideration is the degree to which the enemy caused the injury. The fact that the proposed recipient was participating in direct or indirect combat operations is a necessary prerequisite, but is not sole justification for award. The Purple Heart is not awarded for non-combative injuries.
Enemy-related injuries which justify the award of the Purple Heart include injury caused by enemy bullet, shrapnel, or other projectile created by enemy action; injury caused by enemy placed land mine, naval 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.
Injuries or wounds which do not qualify for award of the Purple Heart include frostbite or trench foot injuries; heat stroke; food poisoning not caused by enemy agents; chemical, biological, or nuclear agents not released by the enemy; battle fatigue; disease not directly caused by enemy agents; accidents, to include explosive, aircraft, vehicular, and other accidental wounding not related to or caused by enemy action; self-inflicted wounds (e.g., a soldier accidentally fires their own gun and the bullet strikes his or her leg), except when in the heat of battle, and not involving gross negligence; post-traumatic stress disorders; and jump injuries not caused by enemy action.
It is not intended that such a strict interpretation of the requirement for the wound or injury to be caused by direct result of hostile action be taken that it would preclude the award being made to deserving personnel. Commanders must also take into consideration the circumstances surrounding an injury, even if it appears to meet the criteria. In the case of an individual injured while making a parachute landing from an aircraft that had been brought down by enemy fire; or, an individual injured as a result of a vehicle accident caused by enemy fire, the decision will be made in favor of the individual and the award will be made. As well, individuals wounded or killed as a result of “friendly fire” in the “heat of battle” will be awarded the Purple Heart as long as the “friendly” projectile or agent was released with the full intent of inflicting damage or destroying enemy troops or equipment. Individuals injured as a result of their own negligence, such as by driving or walking through an unauthorized area known to have been mined or placed off limits or searching for or picking up unexploded munitions as war souvenirs, will not be awarded the Purple Heart as they clearly were not injured as a result of enemy action, but rather by their own negligence.
From 1942 to 1997, civilians serving or closely affiliated with the armed forces—as government employees, Red Cross workers, war correspondents and the like—were eligible to receive the Purple Heart. About 100 men and women received the award, the most famous being newspaperman Ernie Pyle, who was awarded a posthumous Army Purple Heart after being killed by Japanese machine gun fire in 1945.
The most recent Purple Hearts presented to civilians occurred after the terrorist attacks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia, in 1996—about 40 U.S. civil service employees received the award for their injuries.
In 1997, however, at the urging of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Congress passed legislation prohibiting future awards of the Purple Heart to civilians. Today, the Purple Heart is only for those men and women in uniform. Civilian employees of the U.S. Department of Defense who are killed or wounded as a result of hostile action may receive the new Defense of Freedom Medal, created shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Purple Heart Medal with gold 5/16 inch star from World War II in presentation case
Current active duty personnel are awarded the Purple Heart upon recommendation from their chain of command, stating the injury that was received and the action in which the service member was wounded. The award authority for the Purple Heart is normally at the level of an Army Brigade, Marine Corps Division, Air Force Wing, or Navy Task Force. While the award of the Purple Heart is considered automatic for all wounds received in combat, each award presentation must still be reviewed to ensure that the wounds received were as a result of enemy action. Modern day Purple Heart presentations are recorded in both hardcopy and electronic service records. The annotation of the Purple Heart is denoted both with the service member’s parent command and at the headquarters of the military service department. An original citation and award certificate are presented to the service member and filed in the field service record.
During the Vietnam War, Korean War, and World War II, the Purple Heart was often awarded on the spot, with occasional entries made into service records, but this was often not the case. In addition, during the mass demobilizations that followed each of America’s major wars of the 20th century, it was a common occurrence for the Purple Heart to be omitted from service records, due to clerical errors, once the service record was closed upon discharge. An added complication is that a number of field commanders would engage in bedside presentations of the Purple Heart which would typically entail a general entering a hospital with a box of Purple Hearts, pinning them on the pillows of wounded service members, and then departing with no official records kept of the visit or the award of the Purple Heart. Service members, themselves, could complicate the issue by leaving hospitals unofficially, returning to their units in haste to rejoin a battle or to not appear as a malingerer. In such cases, even if a service member had received actual wounds in combat, both the award of the Purple Heart, as well as the entire visit to the hospital which treated the enemy wound, would never be recorded in official records.
Service members requesting retroactive awards of the Purple Heart must normally apply through the National Personnel Records Center. Following a review of service records, those Army members so qualified are awarded the Purple Heart by the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Alexandria, Virginia. Air Force veterans are awarded the Purple Heart by the Awards Office of Randolph Air Force Base while the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard present Purple Hearts to veterans through the Navy Liaison Officer at the National Personnel Records Center. Simple clerical errors, where a Purple Heart is denoted in military records but was simply omitted from a DD Form 214 (Report of Separation), are corrected on site at the National Personnel Records Center through issuance of a document known as a DD-215.