Purple Heart controversy stirs interest

September 26, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

TRI-STATE - A military honor created by the nation's first president 222 years ago could be a factor in who the next president will be.

Gen. George Washington was "desirous to cherish virtuous ambition in his soldiers as well as foster and encourage every species of military merit" when he established the Purple Heart during the Revolutionary War.

The quote appears in Washington's General Orders in 1782, when he was asked to stop granting advances in rank and commissions to soldiers as rewards for meritorious service, according to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a congressionally-chartered fraternal group based in Springfield, Va.


Acceding, Washington created the Badge of Military Merit, which later became known as the Purple Heart.

The decoration has been prominent in the current presidential campaign because of Democratic nominee John Kerry, who received three Purple Heart awards for serving in the Vietnam War.

A group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has questioned elements of his military service, alleging that "at least one of Kerry's Purple Heart awards was the result of his own negligence, not enemy fire."

Kerry, though, has defended his record and counterattacked Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's allegations.

According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart's Web site, Gen. Washington's orders say, "[T]he author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with due reward."

The Badge of Military Merit "was affixed to the uniform coat above the left breast and permitted its wearer to pass guards and sentinels without challenge and to have his name and regiment inscribed in a Book of Merit," according to a U.S. Army Web site.

Ray Funderburk of Mississippi, the national public relations director for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said Washington had no medals to give out, so he cut a heart out of purple cloth and pinned it on the breast of deserving soldiers.

The award "fell into disuse following the Revolution," but was revived in 1932, the Army's Web site says.

A U.S. Army Regulation covering Department of Defense awards and decorations says a Purple Heart is given "in the name of the President of the United States to any member of an Armed Force or any civilian national of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917," is wounded or killed "[i]n any action against an enemy of the United States" or "[i]n 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," among other conditions.

The regulation was amended in 1984 to include those wounded or killed "[a]fter 28 March 1973, as a result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the United States" or "as a result of military operations while serving outside the territory of the United States as part of a peacekeeping force."

A 1996 amendment extended the honor to prisoners of war wounded before April 25, 1962.

In 1998, another amendment limited recipients to members of the U.S. Armed Forces, excluding civilians. However, in 2001, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld unveiled a civilian equivalent - the Defense of Freedom Medal - according to a Web site for Mount Vernon, Washington's Virginia estate.

"While clearly an individual decoration, 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," the Army regulation says.

As examples of "enemy-related injuries which clearly justify award of the Purple Heart," the regulation lists: injuries caused by enemy bullets, shrapnel, or other projectiles; mines or traps; chemical, biological or nuclear agents; vehicle or aircraft accidents caused by enemy fire; and concussions caused by enemy-generated explosions.

Example of injuries "which clearly do not qualify for award of the Purple Heart" include: frostbite or trench foot injuries; heat stroke; chemical, biological or nuclear agents not released by the enemy; accidents not related to or caused by enemy agents; battle fatigue; post-traumatic stress disorders; self-inflicted wounds, except when in the heat of battle, and not involving gross negligence; and food poisoning not caused by enemy agents.

Funderburk said the Military Order of the Purple Heart does not take a position on whether Kerry - or anyone else - deserves a Purple Heart, but the group is pleased that there's interest in the honor.

"We're glad that people are concerned about the Purple Heart," he said.

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