The history behind Purple Heart Day

Author: CBS News
Published: Updated:
FILE: Purple Heart medals, bearing the image of Gen. George Washington, are seen prior to the start of a ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in this April 2007 file photo. AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK/FILE

Today is Purple Heart Appreciation Day.

While the Medal of Honor is still the highest military decoration, the Purple Heart is the oldest.

It began as the Badge of Military Merit … an extraordinary piece of American history, created on August 7, 1782.

“The Badge of Military Merit is significant, because it is the inspiration for the modern Purple Heart,” said Peter Bedrossian, program director of the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, in New Windsor, N.Y.

The hall has one of only three known original cloth-and-silk Badges of Merit issued and designed by George Washington himself.

“Let it be known,” he ordered, “that he who wears the Military Order of the Purple Heart has given of his blood in the defense of his homeland, and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen.”

One was presented to Sergeant Elijah Churchill of the Continental Army. He crossed Long Island Sound with his company and was awarded the badge.

The color purple, said Bedrossian, signified royalty: Purple dye was expensive — the average person couldn’t afford a purple garment — and so purple would signify an elevation of your status above those around you.”

After Independence, though, the Merit Badge was forgotten.

But in 1932 — on the bicentennial of Washington’s birth — Gen. Douglas MacArthur revived it. It would no longer be a stitched patch, but a medal featuring a bust of Washington and his coat of arms, given to service members killed or wounded by enemy action.

“It’s the warrior being honored,” said Bedrossian. “What the warrior goes through remains the same.”

Tony Lassiter is one of those warriors; he served in Vietnam. “We were on a convoy and that’s when we were ambushed,” he recalled. “I had two of my soldiers killed.”

Nearly two million Purple Hearts have been awarded since 1932.

Among the recipients: Michael Clemente’s father. His son, Michael Clemente Jr., brought pictures and paperwork so that his father’s name could be added to the Purple Heart Honor Roll.

“He was in the Battle of the Bulge, in a lot of battles,” Clemente Jr. said.

As for Tony Lassiter, he keeps his framed … a reminder of his service and sacrifice.

“It’s one medal that you don’t want to receive, because you gotta get wounded or killed to receive it,” he said. “But I mean it’s just special to me. Every morning when I walk out that door, there’s my medal hanging there. But there’s a lot of pain to get that medal.”

To enroll names in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor’s database of medal recipients, please contact toll free 1-877-28HONOR, or complete their enrollment form (pdf).

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