Civilians were once eligible for Purple Heart


By Harold B. Wolford - Veterans Corner



Animals are generally not eligible for the Purple Heart; however, there have been rare instances when animals holding military rank were honored with the award. An example includes the horse, Sergeant Reckless, during the Korean War.

From 1942 to 1997, non-military personnel 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 whether in peacetime or armed conflicts. Among the earliest to receive the award were nine Honolulu Fire Department firefighters killed or wounded in peacetime while fighting fires at Hickam Field during the attack on Pearl Harbor. About 100 men and women received the award, the most famous being newspaperman Ernie Pyle, who was awarded a Purple Heart posthumously by the Army after being killed by Japanese machine gun fire in the Pacific Theater, near the end of World War II. Before his death, Pyle had seen and experienced combat in the European Theater, while accompanying and writing about infantrymen for the folks back home. Those serving in the Merchant Marine are not eligible for the award. During World War II, members of this service who met the Purple Heart criteria received a Merchant Marine Mariner’s Medal instead.

The most recent Purple Hearts presented to non-military personnel occurred after the terrorist attacks at Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia, in 1996. For their injuries, about 40 U.S. civil service employees received the award.

However, in 1997, at the urging of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Congress passed legislation prohibiting future awards of the Purple Heart to non-military personnel. 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. This award was created shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Purple Heart award is a heart-shaped medal within a gold border, 1 3⁄8 inches (35 mm) wide, containing a profile of Gen. 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.

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. In addition, during mass demobilizations following each of America’s major wars of the 20th century, it was common occurrence to omit mention from service records of a Purple Heart award. This occurred due to clerical errors, and became problematic once a service record was closed upon discharge. In terms of keeping accurate records, it was commonplace for some field commanders to engage in bedside presentations of the Purple Heart. This typically entailed a general entering a hospital with a box of Purple Hearts, pinning them on the pillows of wounded service members, then departing with no official records kept of the visit, or the award of the Purple Heart. Service members, themselves, complicated matters by unofficially leaving hospitals, hastily returning to their units to rejoin battle so as not to appear 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, was unrecorded 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, qualified Army members are awarded the Purple Heart by the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Air Force veterans are awarded the Purple Heart by the Awards Office of Randolph Air Force Base, while 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 WD AGO Form 53-55 (predecessor to the) DD Form 214 (Report of Separation), are corrected on site at the National Personnel Records Center through issuance of a DD-215 document.

Because the Purple Heart did not exist prior to 1932, decoration records are not annotated in the service histories of veterans wounded, or killed, by enemy action, prior to establishment of the medal. The Purple Heart is, however, retroactive to 1917 meaning it may be presented to veterans as far back as the First World War. Prior to 2006, service departments would review all available records, including older service records, and service histories, to determine if a veteran warranted a retroactive Purple Heart. As of 2008, such records are listed as “Archival”, by the National Archives and Records Administration, meaning they have been transferred from the custody of the military, and can no longer be loaned and transferred for retroactive medals determination. In such cases, requestors asking for a Purple Heart (especially from records of the First World War) are provided with a complete copy of all available records (or reconstructed records in the case of the 1973 fire) and advised the Purple Heart may be privately purchased if the requestor feels it is warranted.

A clause to the archival procedures was revised in mid-2008, where if a veteran, or, if deceased, an immediate member of the family, requested the Purple Heart, on an Army or Air Force record, the medal could still be granted by the National Archives. In such cases, where a determination was required made by the military service department, photocopies of the archival record, (but not the record itself), would be forwarded to the headquarters of the military branch in question. This stipulation was granted only for the Air Force and Army; Marine Corps, Navy, and Coast Guard archival medals requests are still typically only offered a copy of the file and told to purchase the medal privately. For requests directly received from veterans, these are routed through a Navy Liaison Office, on site at 9700 Page Ave., St. Louis, MO 63132-5100 (the location of the Military Personnel Records Center).

The local Military Order of the Purple Heart meets at 2 p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month at 1680 Hanover Road in Delaware. For more information, call 740-369-0652 or visit www.PurpleHeart.org.

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By Harold B. Wolford

Veterans Corner

Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973. Wolford can be reached via email at harold@wolfordhome.com.

Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973. Wolford can be reached via email at harold@wolfordhome.com.