How To Earn a Purple Heart

Which injuries are medal-worthy?

In honor of war wounds

Yesterday, Bob Dole joined Republican critics who claim that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry doesn’t deserve the Purple Hearts he won in Vietnam. Dole said, “three Purple Hearts and never bled that I know of. I mean, they’re all superficial wounds.” But is bleeding even necessary? How do you earn a Purple Heart?

A Purple Heart is awarded to any member of the armed forces (including the Coast Guard) who is killed or wounded in action; the severity of the injury isn’t really at issue. According to Navy regulations, a worthy wound is merely “an injury to any part of the body from an outside force or agent, sustained while in action. … A physical lesion is not required, provided the concussion or other form of injury received was a result of the action in which engaged.” The other services’ regulations include similar language, stipulating, as the Army’s does, that “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.”

In other words, a Band-Aid boo-boo is fair game, so long as enemy action is somewhere obvious in the causal chain. Bruises from bailing out of a plane that’s been shot down could count; training injuries could not. (Interestingly, the Army rules that post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t count either.)

The situations that merit the Purple Heart—which was called the Badge of Military Merit when it was first awarded, during the Revolutionary War—have been tweaked a few times since the award was revived in 1932 (on the 200th birthday of George Washington, whose bust appears in the heart). But the changes wouldn’t affect Kerry’s eligibility for medals in any way. The most significant modifications in the last 40 years expanded the list of injuries that might warrant a medal, adding wounds sustained during terrorist attacks and peacekeeping missions, and wounds incurred from friendly fire in the heat of battle.

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