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Report to Congress on The Purple Heart

The following is the Jan. 8, 2019 Congressional Research Service Report, The Purple Heart: Background and Issues for Congress.

From the Report

The Purple Heart is one of the oldest and most recognized American military medals, awarded to servicemembers who were killed or wounded by enemy action. The conflicts of the last decade have greatly increased the number of Purple Hearts awarded to servicemembers. Events over the past few years have spurred debate on the eligibility criteria for the Purple Heart. Shootings on U.S. soil and medical conditions such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have prompted changes to the eligibility requirements for the Purple Heart. Some critics believe that these changes may lessen the value of the medal and the sacrifices of past recipients on the battlefield. In the past, efforts to modify the Purple Heart’s eligibility requirements were contentious, and veterans groups were very vocal concerning eligibility changes.

While medal requirements are often left to the military and executive branch to decide, Congress is showing increased interest and involvement in Purple Heart eligibility, utilizing its constitutional power “To Make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces” (U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 8, clause 14). The Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (P.L. 113-291) included language that expands eligibility for the Purple Heart.

Previous debates have raised several questions about the Purple Heart. In some respects, how an event is defined can determine eligibility: Is a servicemember the victim of a crime or a terrorist attack? Conversely, arguing that killed or wounded servicemembers “should” be eligible for the Purple Heart can redefine an event: Is the servicemember an advisor to a foreign military or a combatant? Are PTSD and other mental health conditions adequate injuries to warrant the Purple Heart? These are questions that Congress might consider if it chooses to act on this issue.

Download the report here.

  • Marc Apter

    I think we need a different medal, other than the Purple Heart, for the wounds sustained other than direct combat. A Purple Heart with a Combat Clasp might do it.

    • alsotps

      A very interesting compromise, though the combat clasp would have to be defined as was the WWII Purple Heart: the need to ‘show blood.” The clasp would then distinguish between the physical and mental wounds…both being real and often both sustained in direct combat.

      • MNCMNavyRetired

        I don’t like the “show blood” requirement because if a soldier was in a vehicle that was destroyed by a mine (planted by an enemy) and died from a broken neck (but no blood was shed), why shouldn’t he receive a Purple Heart?

        • alsotps

          Good point. anyone who is classified as Killed in Action (as I suspect the person in your example would be) should definitely earn a Purple Heart.

          By the way, I was echoing a line from a previous war as a historian, not as a vet. As an ‘outsider’ I find the discussion similar to that of the arguments surrounding the CIB and the need for combat medics to gain similar recognition during WWII.

          Personally, I find it important to acknowledge in some way the psychic/mental wounds wars inflict on the military involved.

        • Duane

          According to Wikipedia, blood isn’t necessary. The criteria posted is as follows:

          “A “wound” is defined as an injury to any part of the body from an outside force or agent sustained under one or more of the conditions listed above. A physical lesion is not required; however, the wound for which the award is made must have required treatment by a medical officer and records of medical treatment for wounds or injuries received in action must have been made a matter of official record. When contemplating an award of this decoration, the key issue that commanders must take into consideration is the degree to which the enemy caused the injury. The fact that the proposed recipient was participating in direct or indirect combat operations is a necessary prerequisite, but is not sole justification for award. The Purple Heart is not awarded for non-combat injuries.”

          Your soldier or sailor or airman with a broken neck from a mine detonation would qualify if it is sustained from enemy action. If he or she drives a Humvee over a cliff absent combat, that wouldn’t qualify. Or if a sailor just trips up and falls to a lower deck, or falls overboard, and there is no engagement with the enemy, no Purple Heart. But a broken neck suffered after his or her ship takes a torpedo, yup, that’s a PH.

  • MNCMNavyRetired

    If you want to see the misuse of the Purple Heart simply look at John Kerry. He was given three Purple Heart medals for injuries that needed a TOTAL of TWO stitches.

  • Ctrot

    The warfighter who is wounded in combat and back on duty within 24 hours and the warfighter who is killed in combat should not be receiving the exact same medal.

    My cousin lost his life in the sinking of USS Indianapolis, was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the same medal that would be awarded to a soldier who got nicked in the ear by a piece of shrapnel. There needs to be a distinction.