Men and women who go into battle while serving in the U.S. armed forces often carried tangible scars.
On this day 230 years ago, Gen. George Washington created the “Badge for Military Merit” as a badge of distinction for enlisted men and noncommissioned officers who displayed any singularly meritorious action. The badge permitted its wearer to pass guards and sentinels without challenge, while the soldier’s name and regiment were inscribed in a “Book of Merit,” according to History.com.
Washington’s symbol of honor was awarded to just three known soldiers during the Revolutionary War: Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell Jr.
Today, the Badge for Military Merit is known as the Purple Heart, the oldest American military decoration awarded for military actions. It is presented to members of the U.S. armed forces who have been killed or wounded in action against an enemy. Soldiers who have suffered maltreatment as prisoners of war may also receive the Purple Heart.
According to Marine Corps veteran John Cooper, of Tahlequah, the medal is earned at immeasurable cost and possesses inestimable value, though soldiers do not set out to win it. Cooper served with Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines Division, during the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.
“It’s not something you need to be proud of, but at the same time, it’s not something you need to be ashamed of,” said Cooper.
He earned his Purple Heart 44 years ago during what became known as the Battle of Mike’s Hill.
“This was in January 1968. I don’t remember the exact day, but I do remember it was near the end of the month,” Cooper said. “We were between Khe Sanh and Camp Carroll. All heck broke loose about 5 in the morning. It was strictly a firefight, one nice little firefight. The explosive stuff came the day before. I was shot in my left leg and foot. It was something that just happened. I might have zigged when I should have zagged. In my case, it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”
Americans who have family members or friends serving in the military may not always understand what the Purple Heart is and why it exists. Cooper noted the medal’s creator and his desire to lift up the men fighting for their country, despite being denied pay, food rations and needed supplies by their government.
“George Washington did this to honor the men who served bravely,” said Cooper. “Congress back then was silly. They didn’t have a lot of medals. This was something that Washington did to honor those men. Sometimes it was given just for bravery. It was first given out for honor. It wasn’t really a combat medal. I think it was just before World War II when they reinstituted the medal.”
According to purplehearts.net, the Badge for Military Merit – which originally was a purple cloth heart edged in silver braid worn over the left breast of the uniform – was instituted by Washington in 1782. What is known today as the Purple Heart was re-established in 1932 to mark the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth.
The original criteria for earning the honor included acts of rare courage and displayed loyalty, and when reinstated in 1932, the medal’s criteria included anyone serving in the army who had received combat-related injuries or had received the AEF’s Meritorious Service Citation Certificate during World War I.
Then, in April 1942, the War Department amended the criteria eliminating use of the medal as a merit award and began recognizing the Purple Heart for all fatal and non-fatal wounds retroactive to Dec. 7, 1941.
It was on March 23, 1944, three miles from Nuremberg, Germany, just across the Rhine River, when World War II veteran Ed Bray, a private first class infantryman with the U.S. Army 94th Division, earned his Purple Heart.
Bray said the mission was “to take Nuremberg,” and it was on the approach when he was wounded while crossing a field.
“We were fixing to attack the bridge, and it was 7 in the morning,” he said. “They kind of nailed me. They got me five times.”
Retired Lt. Col. Michael Hunt has served as the Junior ROTC instructor at Tahlequah High School since retiring from active duty in 1997. He enlisted immediately after high school graduation, and was serving in Vietnam when he earned his Purple Heart in November 1970.
“We had been in contact with NVA forces for about a week on Hill 356, just outside Da Nang, and a couple of members of my unit had been wounded the day before from contact with the enemy,” said Hunt.
“We were sent back up the hill to recon and find out where the enemy was the next day. During contact that day, another member of my unit and myself were wounded. I was wounded in the right leg.”
To see the complete version of this article, subscribe to the Daily Press e-edition by following the link below.
Click here to get the entire Tahlequah Daily Press delivered every day to your home or office.
Click here to get a free trial or to subscribe to the Tahlequah Daily Press electronic edition. It's the ENTIRE newspaper (without the paper) for your computer, iPad or e-reader.