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The Purple Heart

Based on the original Badge of Merit, today's Purple Heart medal is the shape of a heart and purple in color.  Bordered in bronze, the medal features a bronze bust of President George Washington, who created the badge, and the Washington coat-of-arms between sprays of leaves at the top.  The bronze back says "For military merit" on a raised heart.

(By Eric Smith, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

General George Washington established the Badge of Military Merit on Aug. &, 1982, to reward troops for "unusual gallantry" and "extraordinary fidelity and essential service."  The award was a purple cloth heart edged in silver braid, and was worn on the left breast of the uniform.

The award was re-established and re-designed in 1932 to coincide with Washington's 200th birthday.  Original criteria for the renamed Purple Heart, as published in the War Department Circular No.6 of Feb.22, 1932, states the medal should be awarded to any soldier who received combat-related injuries or had received a Meritorious Service Citation Certificate from the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.  Awards were retroactive to any soldier wounded from the Civil War on; eligible recipients were required to submit a formal application to the War Department.  In 1942, the Army estimated that 186,000 living veterans were eligible to receive a retroactive Purple Heart; about 78,000 retroactive Purple Hearts were awarded between 1932 and 1942.  The Purple Heart was authorized by the Navy in 1942.

In April 1942, the War Department amended its policy of issuing the Purple Heart, authorizing the posthumous award.  Today, the criteria have been amended to include those killed or wounded as a result of "an international terrorist attack" and " as part of a peacekeeping force."


1. Is the Purple Heart awarded to anyone hurt in a war zone?

No. The medal is awarded to:

-Those wounded or injured as a direct result of hostile enemy action.

-Those wounded or injured as a direct result of friendly fire, or by your own projectile or non-projectile weapon while engaging in, responding to or attacking an enemy.

-Prisoners of war injured or wounded in individually directed conflict or punishment with their captor in violation of an article of the Geneva Convention Rules of Warfare Concerning the treatment of Prisoners of War, whether or not the captor's government signed the Convention.

2. Are all prisoners of war eligible for the Purple Heart?

No. POWs injured or wounded in individually directed conflict or punishment with their captor in violation of any article of the Geneva Convention Rules of Warfare Concerning the Treatment of Prisoners of War, whether or not the captor’s government signed the Convention, may be eligible for the Purple Heart.

POWs who died in captivity as a qualifying POW are presumed to have died as the “result of enemy action,” unless compelling evidence is presented to the contrary, are eligible for the Purple Heart.

3. Does the type or degree of the injury matter in awarding a Purple Heart?

No. Any wound that meets the above criteria merits a Purple Heart.

4. Is a Purple Heart awarded for an injury that does not cause blood loss or break the skin?

Yes. Any enemy-inflicted wound, whether there is an observable loss of blood or not, merits a Purple Heart.  A concussion caused by a roadside bomb, for example, that renders a service member temporarily incapacitated is a wound, even though brain trauma is not visible to the eye.

5. Does an injury have to be seen by a doctor or medic to be eligible for a Purple Heart?

Yes. A service member must be treated by a military or military certified medical person at the time of injury, or shortly thereafter and records of medical treatment for wounds or injuries received in action must have been made a matter of official record.

6. Can a service member who accidently shoots himself or is accidentlly short by a unit member while cleaning a weapon eligible for a Purple Heart?

No. Accidental shootings that do not involve an engagement with an enemy are classified as workplace accidents.

7. Is a service member injured by the ricochet of his own bullet, grenade, missile, etc, eligible for a Purple Heart?

Yes, if the service meber was firing his weapon at an enemy

8. Is a service member injured by the recoil of his own weapon eligible for a Purple Heart?

No.  When firing a weapon at an enemy, it is the projectile (bullet, missile, etc.), not the rifle or gun butt, that is the soldier's instrument intended to negate the success of an enemy.  Service members are trained to prevent avoidable recoil injuries.

9. Is a service member who is injured while jumping off of or out of a vehicle or structure to avoid injury or capture eligible for a Purple Heart?

Not usually.  Most injuries of this type are classified as a "workplace accident."  There are some minor circumstances, however, that may render the injured eligible for a Purple Heart.

10. What if the same type of injury is caused y enemy or friendly fire?

The service member would be eligible for a Purple Heart.

11. If a service member is injured by a secondary object (not a bullet or missile) during an enemy attack eligible for a Purple Heart?

Yes.  For example, if enemy fire (or friendly fire) during an engagement with an enemy knocks down a tree, which falls on and injures a service member, the injured service member is eligible.

12. Are service members diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder eligible for the Purple Heart?

No.  War-related PTSD is a psychological condition that may or may not manifest physical symptoms, but is neither a wound nor an injury caused by enemy or friendly fire.  PTSD is an individual conditin that is not shared by everyone experiencing the same or similar wartime incidents.  The Department of Veterans Affairs does provide treatment and/or compensation for diagnosed cases of PTSD, but a military medal has notbeen established for postservice psychological based symptomatic disorders.

13. Are service members diagnosed with Agent Orange related ailments eligible for te Purple Heart?

No. Agent Orange was a herbicide used to defoliate dense vegetation, it was never intended to be used as, or ever used as, an anti-personnel weapon.  Much like PTSD, Agent Orange s neither a wound nor an injury caused by enemy or friendly fire.

14. Is a commander wounded by a subordinate or a superior in a "fragging" incident eligible for a Purple Heart?

No.  "Fraggings" are criminal incidents; they are neither enemy-or friendly fire related.  (The term "Fragging" originated in the Vietnam War and most commonly referred to the death of an officer in one's fighting unit with a fragmentation grenade.  Despite the name, the act was more commonly committed with firearms.)

15.  Can a Purple Heart be awarded posthumously or after a servicemember is discharged from military service?

Yes.  The majority ( but not all) combat-related deaths are automatically awarded the Purple Heart.  Veterans injured by enemy or friendly fire who did not receive a Purple Heart prior to their discharge may, if eligible, successfully petition their service department's awards branch.  Each service branch (Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy) has its own awards branch, which is the only legal agency that can authorize a post-service military award.  Only in specific cases of a previously rejected application or recommendation can a review board authorize a post-service medal to a discharged veteran.

However, a service member cannot recommend himself or herself for a Purple Heart, or any other medal except the Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.

16. Is a citation written for Purple Heart awards?

Rarely, which makes tracking the number of Purple Hearts that have been given difficult.

17. Is a certificate issued for Purple Heart awards?

Not always.  Display certificates are authorized, but the military has never been required by Congress to issue a certificate.  Certificates are issued to active duty personnel only when the local command has certificates to issue.  (Before 1995, the government was not required to issue a full-sized medal.)  The only military certificate required by Congress is the Medal of Honor.

18. Does the military or government keep a list of Purple Heart recipients?

No.  The only military medal list budgeted by Congress is the Medal of Honor.  The Marine Corps, the smallest service branch, maintains a "tape" of its Purple Heart recipients, but that is not required by Congress, nor is it required to be publicly accessible.  The tapes are used for internal audit purposes.

19. Will the government replace a lost or stolen Purple Heart?

No.  Military medals are issued only once.  If a Purple Heart was never issued, only the recipient or a direct family member (if the recipient is infirm or deceased) can apply for a first-time issue.  Replacement medals can be purchased from any military medal retailer.  Only medals that say "official" on the packaging meet official U.S. government specifications.

20. Who makes official Purple Heart medals?

The U.S. government does not make Purple Heart medals, or any other medals.  (The only metallic project manufactured by the government for public distribution are currency coins.) Military medals, like military weapons and other equipment, are manufactured by private industry.

21. Can a family member request a replacement medal?

Military medals and information from a veteran's military files can legally be requested by parents, siblings and children of an active military personnel or veteran.  Under the Freedom of Information Act, other relatives are not excluded from applying for information if there is no living parent, sibling or child.

22. Can anyone possess a Purple medal or certificate?

Yes.  Family members and collectors can legally possess military medals and certificates authorized or awarded to legal recipients.  But it is a punishable federal offense to possess any military medal or medal certificate that you fraudulently claim you officially received.  Anyone who falsely claims they are the legal recipient of a United States or foreign military medal or certificate is subject to prosecution and penalty.

23. Are military medals issued with the name of the recipient engraved in the medal?

Not as a matter of policy.  Only in rare cases are medals officially engraved with the name of the recipient.  Recipients and family members are authorized to have medals engraved with the name of the recipient.

24.  I found a Purple Heart medal.  Should I look for the owner?  Can I keep it?

No.  Lost medals, or any other military item, remain the property of the United States government.  Found items should be mailed, along with a letter identifying the finder and the location where the item was found, to:

The Secretary of Defense

Room 3E880

The Pentagon

Washington, DC 20301

I bought a Purple Heart medal that once belonged to a veteran, and returned it to the veteran or his family.  Can I ask for compensation?

United States military medals hold an exalted place in our society -- the recipient of that medal gave part of himself for his country.  Whenever you see a pre-owned military medal being sold, ask the seller to return the medal tot he Secretary of Defense at the address listed above.

Sources: American War Library and Purple (found in the National Commander's Meeting booklet 2009.)