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Veterans battle to save Purple Heart stamp
McClatchy Newspapers


January 05, 2006

WASHINGTON - With stamp prices set to rise on Jan. 8, from 37 cents to 39 cents, the U.S. Postal Service is getting 2-cents' worth from a wounded-veterans group and a senator eyeing a presidential run.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., are in the throes of a petition and letter-writing campaign to extend the life of the Purple Heart stamp. With a growing constituency behind them as the Iraq war wears on, they might yet succeed.

"We're taking into consideration people's desire to have this, and we're working on it," USPS spokesman Jim Quirk said. "We're just trying to decide how best to go about it."




Each time the price of stamps goes up, a generation of stamps becomes obsolete. The postal service sells what remains of the printing but makes no new ones. Customers can paste 2-cent stamps next to the outdated stamps to mail letters, until they exhaust their supply. Then new images get a turn.

This month, for example, a 39-cent "Favorite Children's Book Animals" series will introduce stamps with the Very Hungry Caterpillar and other familiar characters.

In May 2003, the Postal Service unveiled a 37-cent stamp bearing the image of the Purple Heart.

The decoration is awarded to U.S. soldiers wounded or killed in action. Veterans say more than 1.5 million Purple Heart medals have been awarded. They estimate 550,000 recipients are alive today.

The Purple Heart stamp has been popular if not a top seller. Officials estimate that about 300 million have been sold in the past two and a half years. The postal service could provide no formal ranking, but in comparison, the all-time best-selling commemorative image, of Elvis, sold 500 million stamps during its one-year run in 1993.

The Postal Service gets about 50,000 ideas a year about what stamps to consider. The postmaster general, with help from a citizens advisory committee, typically selects two-dozen or three-dozen images, including limited-run commemorative stamps and "definitive" stamps, which typically run through the life cycle of the price tag on the stamp.

Some feature historical figures, others themes. Others, such as the American flag, are all-purpose and printed in the largest volumes.

The postal service issues 35 billion stamps per year.

The campaign for the Purple Heart stamp began in the 1990s, but the concept wasn't approved by the postmaster general until 2002. The stamps came to fruition just two months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Less than two years later, with the war still raging, the postal service announced its plan to raise the first-class rate. Purple Heart recipients knew what that meant - and they began a new campaign to stave off their stamp's demise.

In their fight, the service organization for Purple Heart recipients turned again to Clinton, a key supporter in the original stamp campaign.

She was a solid choice, if not the most obvious one.

Others also considering a run for president in 2008 have stronger military backgrounds. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for example, was a decorated naval aviator shot down, taken prisoner and tortured in Vietnam. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska served in Vietnam in the Army and was made deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration under President Ronald Reagan. Hagel and McCain both have been awarded Purple Hearts.

Clinton did not serve in the military. Her father was in the Navy during World War II but not in combat. Her military deficit could become a factor should she run as a wartime president in 2008. For now, she maintains that she is focused on her 2006 Senate re-election campaign.

In any case, Clinton has made a point in recent years of advocacy for U.S. troops. Long derided by conservatives as a liberal elitist, Clinton also has been criticized from the left since the invasion of Iraq for her support for the war. And she has teamed up with Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, to expand health-care benefits for reservists. In 2001, Clinton co-sponsored a congressional resolution expressing the sense that there should be a commemorative Purple Heart stamp.

The senator has a geographic tie to the Purple Heart.

New York, the state she represents, was where George Washington issued the first Purple Heart decoration during the Revolutionary War. Known then as the Badge of Military Merit, it was a heart made of purple cloth. For a century and a half, that first decoration available to enlisted men lay dormant. It was reinstated in 1932 as a purple, metal and gold heart with Washington's bust inside.

Clinton, meanwhile, had a personal and political connection to the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

The group's legislative director, Hershel Gober, a Purple Heart recipient himself, is an Arkansas native. When Clinton's husband was governor of that state, he tapped Gober as director of the state veterans-affairs department. And when Bill Clinton became president, Gober came to Washington as deputy secretary and, during the last year of the administration, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the Purple Heart stamp campaign, Gober said, "I reached out and asked Hillary if she could help us."

Toward the end of the campaign, he said, "She did in three or four weeks what we had been trying to do for years. She contacted the post office and just made a case for it. Hillary's really been a champion on this for us."

In December, as top officials with Gober's organization made their appeals to Postmaster General John E. Potter, Clinton started a petition on her Senate Web site to urge that he continue the stamp. Clinton also wrote to Potter that "American troops are bravely serving their nation in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, making sacrifices on our behalf," and that the stamp "is one way in which Americans may honor them and express our gratitude for their service."

By mid-December, Potter's office had taken notice. "Traditionally we do not reprint a definitive stamp (when) new rates go into effect," David E. Failor, executive director of stamp services, wrote to James R. Randles, national commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. However, Failor wrote, "Because of the interest being shown in the Purple Heart stamp, we are evaluating the impact a reprint would have on our overall stamp program. A decision will be made shortly."

The issues are not so much costs as tradition and logistics. A postal official who asked that his name be withheld said the cost of digitally removing the 37-cent mark and replacing it with "39" was nominal. But the Purple Heart is not scheduled in the new year's print runs, and adjustments could complicate other printings. Meanwhile, other groups that might otherwise have been satisfied with a one- or two-year run might also demand an extension. On the other hand, the administration's ongoing troop commitment in its war on terror may give the Purple Heart stamp a special standing.

The decision could be announced sometime in January. If a 39-cent Purple Heart stamp is created, it could be months before it is available.

In the meantime, millions of already printed copies of the 37-cent variety remain available through post offices across the country. After Jan. 8, though, don't forget the additional postage.


Distributed to subscribers by Scripps Howard News Service.

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