“Originally known as the Badge of Military Merit, the medal was established by General George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782.”
IT’S LIKELY FEW AMERICANS even know about one of their country’s newest (and perhaps least-known) national holidays when it took place last Thursday. Now in its third year, Purple Heart Day is held Aug. 7 to honour U.S. military battle casualties from the War of Independence right up to the present. The holiday is named for the Purple Heart medal, the well-known U.S. military citation reserved for armed forces personnel who have sustained wounds in action. This year’s occasion was marked by a number of small ceremonies that took place from coast to coast. Despite the somewhat muted celebrations and scant media coverage of the day, the history of the Purple Heart itself is anything but dull. Consider these amazing facts about one of America’s most famous commendations.
The origins of the Purple Heart can be traced back to the Revolutionary War. First known as the Badge of Military Merit, the medal was established by General George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782. It consisted of a simple white ribbon with an embroidered heart-shaped violet cloth emblem. It was the first official battle-honour of the United States. Only seven were awarded before the order was discontinued at the war’s conclusion. And unlike other 18th Century military commendations, which were almost exclusively reserved for senior officers and commanders, the Badge of Military Merit was for ordinary foot soldiers and non-commissioned officers who performed courageously in the face of the enemy.
In 1932, the badge was officially reinstated, thanks in part to the efforts of Maj. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the U.S. Army’s chief of staff at the time. A civilian employee of the quartermaster general named Elizabeth Will redesigned the medal, which was then struck by the Philadelphia Mint. The new award, dubbed the Purple Heart, was originally intended to go to American vets of First World War who had already won the army’s Meritorious Service Citation, as well those having been awarded “wound chevrons” for injuries sustained in combat during the conflict. MacArthur received the first Purple Heart ever handed out for his contribution to the American Expeditionary Force in France. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the commendation to include personnel from any branch of the service, but restricted it exclusively to those “wounded in action against an enemy of the United States.”
The medal itself is a 35 mm-wide (1 3/8-inch) heart-shaped copper-zinc medallion with a gold border. The centre features an embossed profile of George Washington, while the reverse side bears the inscription “For Military Merit”. The medal hangs from a purple ribbon with white piping.
Since World War Two, the Purple Heart has been reserved for personnel serving in the U.S. armed forces, as well as American soldiers attached to allied militaries, that are injured by a “hostile act of force.”  This includes wounds resulting from enemy bullets, shrapnel, bayonets, hand-to-hand combat, mines and explosives, and traps, as well as nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Casualties from vehicle or aircraft crashes caused by enemy fire are also included as are those involved in “friendly fire” incidents. In 2011, the Pentagon widened eligibility to include battle related head concussions and other brain injuries.
According to the U.S. military, Purple Hearts are not awarded to personnel suffering from such conditions as heat exhaustion, frostbite, trench foot, food poisoning, communicable diseases and infections, self-inflicted wounds, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as any non-combat related injuries resulting from accidents.
Famous recipients of the Purple Heart include actors Charles Bronson, James Garner and Lee Marvin; filmmaker Oliver Stone; war hero Audie Murphy; sci-fi guru Rod Serling; author Kurt Vonnegut; presidential hopeful John McCain; Secretary of State John Kerry and President John F. Kennedy.
An estimated 1.9 million Purple Hearts have been awarded since the order was established. The actual number is unknown however as commanders often awarded the citations in the field without officially noting each recipient. National Geographic researched available records in 2010 and came up with figures of known Purple Heart recipients and sorted them by conflict. (See the infographic for a summary of the findings).
No individual can receive more than one Purple Heart. Subsequent injuries are recognized by oak-leaf clusters, which are added to the accompanying ribbon. One Korean War veteran by the name of David Hackworth was honoured three separate times for injuries suffered in separate incidents. Another serviceman, Richard Buck, was recognized on four occasions in Korea and another four times during the Vietnam War. Four different veterans of the war in South East Asia were awarded the Purple Heart eight times each, while one marine, Sgt. Albert Ireland, won the award nine times: Five for injuries sustained in World War Two and four more in Korea. 
The U.S. military is currently sitting on a sizeable stockpile of Purple Hearts that the Pentagon originally ordered in 1945. Half million of the medals were produced in anticipation of the heavy casualties expected in the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. The military has been drawing from these reserves ever since. In fact, the supply has yet to be exhausted.
A number of civilians have been awarded Purple Hearts over the past 75 years. These have included War Department employees wounded in action during the Second World War, as well as Red Cross personnel. Combat journalist Ernie Pyle earned the citation posthumously after being killed by enemy gunfire while covering the fighting on Iejima. Strangely, the 12,000 members of the civilian Merchant Marine that became casualties in the Battle of the Atlantic were denied Purple Hearts. On the other hand, a number of fire fighters that suffered injuries while dousing flames during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were given the award, as were 40 civilians wounded in the June 25, 1995 terrorist attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. In 1997, Washington finally revised the regulations surrounding eligibility to exclude all civilians entirely.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the state of Texas established its own order of the Purple Heart. The commendation goes exclusively to wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen hailing from the Lone Star State. The medal itself is almost identical to the national citation, except the profile of George Washington has been replaced by the state’s coat of arms. A number of American police forces honour wounded or fallen officers with “law enforcement Purple Hearts”. Jurisdictions include New York City, Los Angeles, Denver, Indianapolis and Philadelphia.
While the Purple Heart is an American award, other countries’ militaries have their own commendations for wounded personnel. Since 1916, soldiers of the British Empire injured in combat received the Wound Stripe, a brass bar that was worn on the left forearm. Since 2008, Canadian soldiers and even civilian government employees suffering bodily harm in action receive the Sacrifice Medal. In World War Two, Soviet troops were awarded a red stripe that would be sewn above the right breast pocket on a uniform. Imperial German soldiers injured in the line of duty during the First World War could expect to receive a Wound Badge. The honour continued into the Second World War. During the Allied bombing of the Third Reich, the medal was expanded to recognize civilian casualties as well. Any German soldier hurt three or more times would automatically receive an Iron Cross as well.
It’s against U.S. law to buy or sell Purple Hearts. EBay even expressly forbids the practice. Yet the illegal and grey market for the medals persists.
The town of New Windsor, N.Y. is home to an entire museum devoted exclusively to the well-known citation. The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, which is an hour’s drive north of Manhattan, was founded in 2002 by way of a resolution introduced by then senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The building is not far from the very spot where George Washington was camped when he established the Badge of Military Merit in 1782. The centre maintains a registry of all U.S. military combat casualties from the Revolutionary War right up to the present.