The Purple Heart is a military decoration in the United States Armed Forces for soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who are wounded while engaging enemy forces. The Purple Heart is also not only the oldest American military decoration, but the oldest military decoration in the world that is still in use.


The history of the medal dates back to the American Revolution and General George Washington. Washington believed in his beloved country, and in the men that served it. During the Revolutionary War, Washington would award valor in soldiers with a battlefield commission or a promotion in rank. In 1782, the Continental Congress ordered him to stop doing this, as there was no money to pay officers and barely any to pay soldiers. Without this manner of reward for his soldiers, Washington set about to create a decoration to honor exceptional military merit.

August 7, 1782, Washington wrote into his General Orders instructions on the creation of a decoration for any single action of military merit. Washington stated that the award was to be heart-shaped in purple cloth or silk, "edged with narrow white lace or binding," and worn on the left breast. Furthermore, the recipients of the award would be recorded in a "Book of Merit." The wearer also gained the privilege granted to officers to pass by sentinels without being challenged. "The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all."

The award is believed to have been awarded to only three individuals throughout the Revolutionary War. May 3, 1783, Sergeants Elijah Churchill and William Brown were awarded the "Badge of Military Merit" by Washington himself. On June 10, Sgt. Daniel Bissell, Jr. received one, also from Washington. Since there were no more awarded following the War, these are the only three soldiers to have been given the honor.

The Medal Revived

After the Revolutionary War, the medal fell into disuse. In 1927, General Charles P. Summerall, then Army Chief of Staff, sent a bill to Congress to revive the medal. The bill was withdrawn by the Army, but when General Douglas MacArthur became Chief of Staff, he resumed the efforts. MacArthur wanted the medal to be reinstated on Washington's 200th birthday.

A new design, which kept the original design at heart, was drafted by Elizabeth Will from the Army's Quartermaster General's office. Her design is the design currently in use, except that the Army placed the profile of Washington on the face of the medal. The Philadelphia Mint made a model for display, and the War Department announced the revival of the medal on February 22, 1932. It was then that the award received the title, the "Purple Heart."

The medal was then made available retroactively to World War I veterans, who had received the "Meritorious Service Citation." It was extended to the Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard in December 3, 1942 by an Executive Order of the President. President Kennedy extended the award to any civilian national who was serving under the Armed Forces at the time of the wound. President Ronald Regan further added to the eligible by adding "international terrorist acts" as a qualifying factor.

Criteria for Award

US Law establishes the criteria for the award of the Purple Heart as follows. The medal can be awarded to any member of the Armed Forces or civilian national of the United States serving under one of the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, who has been wounded or killed or will die as a result of wounds received, while:

  • In an action against an enemy of the United States
  • In any action with an opposing armed force of another country, with which the United States is engaging.
  • While serving with friendly foreign forces, in an armed conflict with another armed force, in which the United States is not a "belligerent party."
  • As a result of an act of any such enemy of opposing force.
  • As the result of an act of any hostile foreign force
  • As the result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a friendly country, after 28 March 1973, if the attack is recognized as such by the Secretary of the service branch of the individual.
  • As the result of military operations outside the US, while serving in a peacekeeping force, after 28 March 1973.

The award of the Purple Heart is automatic. One does not have to be recommended by a commander. Furthermore, the wound does not count if it is inflicted by negligence or a general sickness not specifically induced by the enemy force. For example, these would not count: frostbite, heat stroke, food poisoning, battle fatigue, self-inflicted wounds, "jump" injuries, or vehicle accidents (not caused by the enemy).

In the event of the death of the service member, the medal is presented to the next of kin.

Design of the Medal

The Purple Heart is the most expensive military decoration in the world to produce. Nineteen separate operations have to be performed on it, taking it from a rough heart of bronze to the finished award.

The medal is struck with bronze with an enamel purple heart surrounded by a gold border. There is a profile of General George Washington within the enameled heart. Above the heart is George Washington's family crest - a white shield with three red stars above two red bars - surrounded by two sprigs of green leaves. The reverse side features a raise bronze heart with the phrase "FOR MILITARY MERIT" engraved in it, below the Washington coat of arms. Oftentimes, the name of the recipient will be engraved on the reverse, along with the number of the award.

The medal is suspended from a purple ribbon with thin (1/8" wide) white edges, measuring 1 3/8" wide. This is reminiscent of the early award, in which the purple cloth heart was trimmed and edged with white lace. The ribbon equivalent for the medal is of the same pattern and worn with any other ribbons the service member may have been awarded, in proper order.


The Purple Heart is obviously an important medal in the United States Armed Forces. The significance of the medal is that in a military formed by people of the United States, military merit and honor is open to all who earn it - not just the officers. The medal continues to be awarded, and was even awarded to service members injured in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It is an outward sign of the biggest sacrifice - taking a wound or dying in service to one's country.

  • US Army Regulation 600-8-22
  • Military Order of the Purple Heart,
  • Personal Knowledge

Factgirl says The Purple Heart was not given to soldiers who recived their injuries as Prisoners of War (like survivors of WWII's Bataan Death March). In 1996, the National Defense Authorization Act retroactively granted it to POWs - too late for many who had grown old and died without receiving this well-earned honor.

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