The Complex History of the Purple Heart

The military Purple Heart medal
Gretchen Catherwood holds her son's Purple Heart medal in Springville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)

Sarah Corry is the Executive Director of Purple Hearts Reunited and the proud daughter of a Marine Vietnam Veteran and two-time Purple Heart recipient. She resides with her two children, Andrew and Claire, in Vermont.

"Grandpa's heart is purple?" My son asked with a bewildered look on his face. "Why isn't it red?"

Andrew, five years old at the time, overheard my conversation with my father, a Marine Corps Vietnam War Veteran, discussing how grateful my brothers and I are to have my dad's two Purple Hearts in our possession to share and pass down to our children.

As I sat with my son and showed him the two tangible symbols of sacrifice his grandfather made for our country, I was overcome with emotion. This moment with my son was not only precious to me as a mom, but deepened the commitment I have for my role as executive director of Purple Hearts Reunited.

Our mission of returning lost or stolen military medals of valor to veterans or their families is something I have always been passionate about but until this moment, my experience of reuniting medals with families was with my Executive Director hat on. Now I view each one as a proud daughter and grateful mother.

I share this story with you today, on National Purple Heart Day. This day honors families who represent our nation's heroes from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the War on Terror. When servicemen and women are wounded or sacrifice their life in times of war, our country awards the service member or their family with the prestigious Purple Heart.

An estimated 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded in our Nation's history. Over time, many of these medals become lost, stolen, or simply misplaced and we have the tremendous honor of bringing them home.

The original Purple Heart, designated as the Badge of Military Merit, was established by George Washington -- then the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. From then on, as its legend grew, so did its appearance. Although never abolished, the award of the badge was not proposed again officially until after World War I. General Douglas MacArthur, commissioned work of a new design and the Purple Heart was revived on the 200th Anniversary of George Washington's birth by Executive Order of the President of the United States on February 22, 1932.

As I sit here with my son and share the stories of those heroes we are honoring this year, I am completely overwhelmed by their sacrifice to this country.

Men like 1st Sergeant Fred Mueller who was killed on "D-Day" over Normandy with the famed 101st Airborne Division.

Soldiers and Marines like Private First Class Joseph M. Hish and Captain Sebert N. Perry who fought on the hallowed grounds of the Meuse-Argonne and Belleau Woods one hundred years ago during the Great War.

A lost husband and father in Chief Quartermaster Ray C. Ayers, who was killed while serving on the U.S.S. Houston during the Battle of Sunda Strait.

Those that participated in great history, such as Technical Sergeant Thomas M. Williams Jr., who participated in the first heavy bombing mission over Japan.

Our elite operators such as Sergeant First Class Billy D. Evans, who while serving as a Green Beret in Vietnam, received our nation's second highest decoration, the Distinguished Service Cross.

Men who died on frozen battlefields like Corporal Robert G. Miller, who succumbed to his injuries in the Korean War.

Last but not least, our modern-day warriors such as Staff Sergeant Michael T. Jeffrey, who received a Purple Heart for service in Iraq and is currently struggling to find comfort and peace with those injuries that still plague him.

We do more than rescue and return these medals; we reunite and heal families. We return what is often the last tangible piece of a veteran to his or her family. This is often the solace that is needed for a military family to commemorate their loved one's service.

Return ceremonies, like one we held today, educate communities across the country about what it means to serve and provide them with the history behind the medal as well as a detailed accounting of their loved ones' service. In 1973, thousands of military records were destroyed in a devastating fire at the National Personnel Record Center. Through our foundation we have begun the process of piecing together the tattered narrative of American heroes. More importantly, we have honored them by sharing their stories with their own families and a grateful Nation.

Since 2012 we have returned over 500 medals, traveled over 100,000 miles, and affected the lives of over one million people through the foundation. More importantly, we have given precious moments like the one I experienced with my son back to mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and grandchildren across our great nation. Today, we have the great privilege of sharing that moment to seven deserving families and one living hero.

National Purple Heart Day is a wonderful day to highlight these American heroes and their sacrifice. Our nation has heroes currently serving around the world on freedom's frontier, however, and as long as they continue to selflessly serve, Purple Hearts Reunited will continue to work to ensure that these warriors and the tokens and mementos of their service will forever be respected, remembered and returned home.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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