By Meaghan MacDougall
The Purple Heart is the United States’s oldest active military medal, and it’s awarded to service members who were wounded or killed while fighting in the nation’s wars. The award is also the most recognized military medal and also the medal that no service member wants to earn. But what exactly is a Purple Heart, and how much do we actually know about its history?

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The Long History of the Purple Heart and Its Many, Many Variations

The Purple Heart was created in 1782 by Gen. George Washington, who awarded it to Soldiers who fought in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. The award came about because the Continental Congress would not allow George Washington to grant Soldiers commissions and promotions in rank to recognize merit. So, instead, Washington established the Badge of Military Merit because he wanted to recognize and honor merit among the Soldiers. This Purple Heart predecessor award was created on August 7, 1782, and was awarded only to enlisted Soldiers who were recorded in the Book of Merits, which has never been recovered. The medal was then forgotten about for the next 150 years after the American Revolution ended. In 1932, Gen. Douglas MacArthur revisited the idea of granting awards to service members to recognize their efforts. On February 22, 1932, the military Purple Heart award was announced as having been officially established by George Washington in 1782. The award was meant to honor any Soldier in the United States Army who had been wounded or had performed an act of bravery. The United States Army then awarded around 78,000 Soldiers and Veterans with Purple Hearts until the outbreak of World War II. In 1942, the medal was changed yet again to award exclusively Soldiers who were wounded or killed during combat. Franklin D. Roosevelt then made one more change to the award that same year when he signed an executive order granting the Secretary of the Navy the authority to award the Purple Heart to any Sailor, Marine, or Coast Guardsman who had been wounded or killed during combat. Surprise, surprise, it was changed again in the early 1960s by President Kennedy to be awarded to any military person being wounded or killed during combat during the Vietnam War. This still isn’t the end of the medal’s long, storied history of changes. In 1984, President Reagan changed the medal to also be granted to those wounded or killed as a result of a terrorist attack against the U.S. In 2011, the award was changed once more, adding the stipulation that it would be granted to any service member or Veteran who suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Over the next few decades, the Purple Heart changed and evolved as war evolved. New rules add different conditions to allow more service members to be eligible for the medal.

What Does a Purple Heart Mean?

Although the Purple Heart has gone through many changes, the Purple Heart meaning remains the same to each and every service member and Veteran. The medal is a symbol that evokes appreciation and respect for our military members, which is why some might even get a Purple Heart tattoo in honor of those who’ve died or been seriously wounded. Many who have served see it as a reminder of their sacrifices and love of their country. In honor of George Washington’s creation of the award, August 7 is National Purple Heart Day. On this day, we recognize the men and women who have made the sacrifice every service member knows they might need to make but never wish to. That sacrifice is being wounded or killed while serving their country.

The Symbolism Behind the Medal’s Appearance

The meaning behind the Purple Heart award is known to be representative of the sacrifices that service members have made during their time in service. But why does it look the way it does? The Purple Heart medal has a purple ribbon with a gold, heart-shaped medal with George Washington in the center, as he was the creator of the award. The medal is purple because the color purple represents bravery and courage.

Significant Purple Heart Wearers

Currently, the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor estimates that there are 1.8 million service members and Veterans who have received a Purple Heart since 1932. These 1.8 million people are recognized for their bravery and sacrifices while serving their country. Although each and every recipient has tremendous character and bravery, there are some wearers who are significant to United States military history. This includes the first-ever Soldiers to receive the award. Soldiers of the Continental Army, William Brown and Elijah Churchill were the first recipients of the award during the American Revolution. It’s said that Churchill is most likely honored with the award for his gallantry at a battle near Fort St. George, and Brown was awarded for his service during the Siege of Yorktown. Another significant award recipient is the first woman to receive a Purple Heart. Annie G. Fox was the first because of her heroic actions during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. She was serving as a chief nurse at Hickam Field, Hawaii. While Pearl Harbor and her hospital were under attack, she remained calm and directed her staff to tend to the wounded. Out of all our Veteran presidents, there’s only one who received a Purple Heart. John F. Kennedy served in the Navy during World War II and earned this award because he injured his back when a Japanese destroyer hit his patrol torpedo boat. While his boat was sinking, despite his extreme injuries, Kennedy dragged a crew member three miles through the water to safety. All of these individuals have shown courage and bravery and have made the sacrifices they needed to make during their time in service. The Purple Heart award is a symbol of what it means to be a service member as well as serving as a reminder to civilians of the sacrifices military members make for our country.

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