Understanding the Purple Heart


For those without military experience, the ribbons and badges affixed to the uniform of a member of our Armed Forces may simply appear to be colorful decorations. They literally speak to the individual’s professional resume and accomplishments.

Oft referred to as fruit salad, due to the colorful nature of the ribbons, the mounting, sequencing and displaying of the decorations comply with numerous regulations.

For those without military experience, the ribbons and badges affixed to the uniform of a member of our Armed Forces may simply appear to be colorful decorations. They literally speak to the individual’s professional resume and accomplishments.

Oft referred to as fruit salad, due to the colorful nature of the ribbons, the mounting, sequencing and displaying of the decorations comply with numerous regulations.

In general, senior medals, such as awards for battlefield valor, are at the top of the rack of ribbons. “I was there” campaign medals and service medals/ribbons are lower in the sequence.

Some are unique to the individual branches, so may not be recognized by a member of another branch. For example, a Marine may not recognize the Air Force Overseas Short Tour Ribbon. 

Some, due to their uniqueness and meaning, are fairly well known across the services, so a quick scan of a soldier’s, sailor’s, airman’s or Marine’s ribbons and badges reveals a great deal about the servicemember.

Two of those generally recognized are the Army Combat Action Badge (CAB) awarded to soldiers not eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) or Combat Medical Badge (CMB), and the Combat Action Ribbon (CAR) awarded to eligible coastguardsmen, sailors and Marines. The CAB and CAR are distinctive in recognizing, certifying if you will, that the individual “personally engaged or [was] engaged by the enemy” (CAB) or “actively participated in ground or surface combat” (CAR). Put more directly, an individual awarded either the CAB or CAR went to war and participated.

He/she was not an observer from a distance. He/she literally went in harm’s way.

The CAB or CAR on a servicemember’s uniform informs the world that he/she is a warrior; hence the recognition by those in the know. While the CAB and CAR are generally familiar, at least to soldiers and those in the sea services, there is one medal that is arguably the most recognized, even revered.

It is the Purple Heart Medal.

According to the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH), “The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.”

Today’s Purple Heart can be traced back to the Badge of Military Merit, which was created by General George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782.

According to the MOPH website, of the badge General Washington wrote, “The General, ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military

Merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings over the 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 a due reward.”

The medal is in the shape of a heart, with a golden border, with the gold colored profile of General Washington set in a purple field.

The reverse reads, “For Military Merit” and is usually engraved with the recipient’s name.

The medal is then suspended by a purple ribbon with white borders. Re-established as an award for merit at the urging of General Douglas McArthur in 1932, during World War II policy was changed to award the medal exclusively for being wounded or killed in combat.

Today, when viewing a servicemember’s “ribbon rack,” the distinctive purple ribbon with white borders tells the world that the warrior was “wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy.”

During our most recent wars, the criteria for awarding the Purple Heart were updated to recognize the tactics and weapons employed by our enemies – for example, concussions and mild traumatic brain injuries caused by direct or indirect enemy action prevalent in the employment of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and that required treatment by a medical officer.

As one would expect, the criteria for awarding of the Purple Heart remains rigid, including the Marine Corps requiring treatment by a medical officer. As a Marine Corps directive puts it this, “serves to establish a threshold of severity of wounds/injuries that qualify for the PH.”

These criteria specifically exclude, “very minor wounds/injuries requiring only a minimal level of treatment that can adequately be provided by a corpsman or a fellow Marine.”

The men and women who have been awarded the Purple Heart have done the nation’s bidding and paid a price.

Some were wounded.

Some died.

Some wounds are visible, such as a missing limb. Other wounds might not be visible; perhaps covered up by clothing. Still other wounds are invisible, such as the aforementioned brain injuries.

Some, including veterans, may display a distinctive license plate on their vehicles. Or perhaps a window decal. Unfortunately, all too many fellow citizens may not fully appreciate the significance.

If you saw Air Force veteran Staff Sergeant Ulysses Miller, Jr. in uniform, his ribbons and badges would include the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart Medal, Air Medal, Air Force Combat Readiness Medal, Basic Air Force Aircrew Badge, Force Master Parachutist Badge, Presidential Unit Citation w/Oak Leaf cluster (for ground missions in support of Khe Sahn Marine Combat Base), Vietnamese Parachutist Badge, National Defense Service Medal, and Vietnam Service Medal. A Combat Control Team Member (1965-1971), he served multiple times in Vietnam and is a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

Miller wrote about how he was wounded.

“While performing a ‘communications-net’ mission in support of the 834th Air Division at Tan Son Nhut (Saigon), my team came under rocket and mortar fire from several positions while at Phouc Vihn, Vietnam,” he wrote. “I was hit in the back of the head and shoulder by shrapnel and other fragments. I was unconscious for several minutes and evacuated to the Army field hospital on the other side of the landing strip and treated. I was released the next day to continue with my Air Traffic Control duties. The date will forever stay in my mind as December 20, 1969.”

Another veteran, Marine Corps infantry squad leader Robert J. Hernandez, Chapter 49 Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

He explained being wounded during a mortar attack on their base, when a shell landed between the barriers designed to protect them and the doorway to their hooch (Marine Corps parlance for barracks), sending shrapnel into the room and wounding three, including Hernandez.

Ironically, the shell that wounded these three Marines hit a considerable time after a sustained barrage. When that initial barrage ended, Hernandez was in the process of getting his Marines up and at it to go out and hunt down those who had fired on their base when the single mortar round exploded. Hernandez described his anger at the enemy, how “they were able to get me” with a mortar round.

He said, “I could take it face-to-face,” but being hit by a mortar round “wasn’t fighting man-to-man.“

Different specialties in separate branches of our military, fighting in different wars against different enemies decades apart on opposite sides of the world. Both warriors, an airman who was not a pilot and a Marine infantryman, were awarded the Purple Heart Medal.

Of what it means to him, Miller wrote, “It means that when called upon to perform, I answered the call to the best of my ability. There was no hesitation or deflection when an immediate response was necessary. I was there to answer the call to support the assigned mission.”

Continuing about its personal significance, Miller wrote, “At [MOPH] chapter function[s] and veteran holidays, I personally wear the Medal with pride and distinction. Not so much of personal pride but to represent to the community that so many thousands of other Purple Heart holders are not present to enjoy the moment. Some will never enjoy their moment in the sun. Therefore, I stand as their substitute.”

When asked what the civilian community should be told about the Purple Heart, Miller said people need to understand the nature of the medal.

“Joe Civilian should be told simply that this Medal reflects the duty that the soldier, airman, sailor or marine is sometimes called upon to bear. You don’t earn the Purple Heart like other military medals. You are awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat, and families receive the Purple Heart posthumously for a loved one who has been killed in combat. I do not know one person who has wanted a Purple Heart. You are awarded the medal for what may be one of the worst days of your life. Families receive it for the worst day of their lives. It is a symbol of bravery and sacrifice made by our country’s finest.” 

As we recognize National Purple Heart Day on August 7, it is sobering to realize an estimated 1.8 million common men and women have been awarded the Purple Heart. Many of them are our friends, neighbors, and co-workers like Miller and Hernandez, veterans walking among us with many unaware of their service and sacrifice.

Understanding the Purple Heart