By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
January 13, 2006
At most recent count, nearly 19,000 U.S. troops have been - or are eligible to be - decorated with the medal, which honors the sacrifice of those killed or wounded in war.
That number is a fraction of the 220,500 Purple Hearts bestowed by the Army alone on its Vietnam-era casualties, but a quantum increase over the 1,160 the service handed out in the nearly 30 years from the end of that conflict until the 2001 war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nearly half of those given over the three-decade span - 504 - were awarded to Persian Gulf War wounded and dead.
The continuing combat casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the accompanying award of more heart-shaped decorations, are bringing new attention to efforts to establish a National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New York, as well as to a campaign to extend the life of a 37-cent U.S. postage stamp that features the medal.
"We see this as an opportunity to foster understanding of the pain people have suffered shedding blood on the world's battlefields," said Ray Funderburk, spokesman for the Military Order of the Purple Heart, which he said is an organization of recipients who are "the keepers of the medal."
The demand for the decoration also has meant a steady stream of work for a small factory in Tomball, Texas, where most of the medals are reverently assembled by hand.
There, retired Army soldier and West Point graduate Tom Tucker owns Graco Awards Inc., a 70-person operation that crafts Purple Hearts one-by-one. The Pentagon has tapped the company to make more than 80,000 of the medals, which are among the most intricate of all military decorations.
To assemble each one involves about 100 separate steps. "You can't manufacture the Purple Heart with a machine," Tucker said.
The hearts are forged from 24-karat-gold plated brass, then adorned with small sprays of hand-enameled green leaves. A profile bust of Gen. George Washington in uniform is attached, along with his red-and-white family coat of arms. The heart is hung on purple watered silk ribbon, edged with white; this part alone is comprised of eight separate components.
Tucker said he and his employees feel the significance of each medal. "It has a lot of meaning to us. We discuss that quite often," he said.
The path of the Purple Heart to Tomball was full of twists. It began in New York in August 1782, when General Washington devised a heart-shaped badge to be awarded for any "singularly meritorious action" by those in the lower ranks. As such, it was the first American award available to the common soldier. But after the Revolutionary War, the decoration fell into obscurity.
An effort to resurrect it after World War I as a heart-shaped "Badge of Military Merit" fell flat. In 1931, when a search of Washington's papers prior to the celebration of the first president's bicentennial turned up the original badge, Gen. Douglas MacArthur took on the cause. A new one was authorized in 1932, and the association of the medal with war wounds began.
But the Navy balked, considering the decoration an Army award. It wasn't until 1941 that the Purple Heart was officially deemed a military-wide medal. In 1952, President Harry Truman made it retroactive to the World War I era.
The identity of the first Purple Heart recipient is unknown. And, even today, no one can say precisely how many have been distributed. Estimates are that 1.5 million medals have been awarded, and that about 500,000 awardees are still living.
"We have no idea how many have been given," Funderburk said.
Whatever the true total, each one deserves to be honored, and that's what the planned national Hall of Honor would do, he and others say. It is slated for the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site in New York state, where Continental Army officers met in 1783 to determine candidates for the original award.
Funds are still being raised for the $5-million, 7,500-square foot facility, which will feature live and videotaped interviews with veterans, a contemplative courtyard and the opportunity for visitors to leave messages of thanks.
On another front, a battle is underway by the Purple Heart group to persuade the U.S. Postal Service to continue to issue the 37-cent commemorative Purple Heart stamp even though the cost of a first-class stamp has increased to 39 cents.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the sanctity and significance of the Purple Heart comes from the medal's easy availability, Funderburk and others say. Anyone can buy one at flea markets, pawnshops or on the Internet, where Web sites offer the decoration, no questions asked, for as little as $35. An accompanying certificate on onion skin parchment and personalized with your name and any rank you choose costs about $25.
Such commerce in the symbols of American courage and sacrifice would be outlawed by a measure spearheaded last July by Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo. His "Stolen Valor Act" would make it a federal crime to falsely wear the Purple Heart and other top military decorations, or to even list them on a resume if they were not officially earned.
But the proposed bill now sits in the House Judiciary Committee, and its fate remains unclear. "We're waiting for the committee to act," said Salazar spokeswoman Nayyera Haq.
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