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Op-Ed: Reflections On The Purple Heart Award

Op-Ed: Reflections On The Purple Heart Award

The following remarks about the history of the Purple Heart was presented by Army Capt. Barry Josephs during the Woodbridge Veterans Day ceremony.

Every now and then we read about someone who acquires a Purple Heart medal and attempts to find the owner or return the medal to the recipient’s family.  Let’s talk a little about the history of the Purple Heart medal:

Apparently three purple heart badges were awarded by Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War, probably for meritorious service, but the basis of the awards is unclear.  We do know that the badges were made of purple cloth — the color of nobility and royalty — and that they were heart shaped.

It was Gen. Douglas MacArthur who initially proposed the concept of the Purple Heart for those military personnel who were wounded in action.  As Army chief of staff, he had carte blanche to do virtually anything he wanted and in 1932 he became the first recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he received during World War I.

The award was also written to retroactively include the approximately 300,000 casualties we suffered in World War I.

The present-day Purple Heart award is a heart-shaped medal with a gold border containing a profile of General George Washington.  If a serviceman or -woman is wounded more than once an oak leaf cluster or star is added to their Purple Heart medal.

Capt. David Christian of the U.S. Army Special Forces was wounded seven times during several different combat operations in Vietnam.

The first woman to receive both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for valor was Army nurse Lt. Cordelia Betty Cook who was wounded in Italy in 1944 when the Germans shelled her field hospital.  Even though she sustained a shrapnel wound Lt. Cook continued to treat her patients while under shellfire from the enemy.

The official specifications for a Purple Heart recipient are as follows:


During World War II, 1,506,000 Purple Heart medals were minted and interestingly the majority of them were produced in early 1945.  The Pentagon estimated that the struggle to end the Pacific War would last well into 1946 and would cost the United States military approximately a million casualties.  Fortunately, the war ended in August 1945 and left us with a massive surplus of Purple Heart medals.

We have not minted any new Purple Heart medals since 1945 but sadly we have awarded far too many of them:

  • 118,000 in Korea;
  • 351,000 in Vietnam;
  • 607 in the Persian Gulf Wars;
  • 12,500 in Afghanistan;
  • 3,500 in Iraq.

Here are a few celebrities who were Purple Heart recipients:

  • President JFK;
  • Actors Dan Blocker and Audie Murphy;
  • Professional athletes Rocky Bleier, Pat Tillman and Warren Spahn;
  • Filmmaker Oliver Stone;
  • Vietnam War hero John McCain;
  • Senators Robert Dole and Daniel Inouye;
  • Baseball Hall of Fame great Yogi Berra was slightly wounded piloting a naval landing craft during the invasion of southern France in August of 1944. Berra was only 19 years old and did not apply for a Purple Heart because he didn’t want his family back in NJ to know that he had been in danger.  There was a Navy Honor Guard at Yogi Berra’s funeral in 2015.

The Stolen Valor Act of 2013 states that it is a crime for a person to claim they served in the military, embellish their rank or fraudulently claim they received a valor reward with intentions of obtaining money or other tangible benefit.  To me and to any other veteran who was in harm’s way, it is a personal insult for anybody to claim or accept any military award that they did not personally earn.

By Army Capt. Barry Josephs

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