• July 26, 2014

Purple Heart is oldest U.S. military decoration

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Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2014 4:30 am

When Spc. Dakota Cowart looks at the Purple Heart Medal on his uniform or the special plates on his truck, he doesn’t think about his own wounds.

He thinks about the people he was with on Aug. 26.

“That’s pretty much what I think about — all the guys that were in the blast next me in the backseat and my LT (lieutenant),” said Cowart, of 2nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.

Cowart was driving in Afghanistan when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Seven other soldiers were injured, and 1st Lt. Jason Togi lost his life.

During their recovery at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, all of those soldiers received a Purple Heart Medal from then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

“It’s a good medal. Even though it’s not for bravery, I consider it still like bravery because you went over there and took the risk,” Cowart said.

Pfc. Danielle Robledo, 20th Engineer Battalion, 36th Engineer Brigade, never thought she would receive the award. She admits she had to psych herself up to join the Army because of the danger, and chose to be a supply clerk.

During her deployment to Afghanistan in July, enemy forces attacked the base. Robledo was knocked out and took shrapnel in her left leg.

“I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.” she said. “I never asked, ‘Why me?’ I took it as there had to be a reason for it.”

Not only does she have a Purple Heart to remind her of her wounds, but also scars on her leg — beauty marks, she said. During a dress uniform inspection, Robledo said her first sergeant saw the medal and told her to “wear it proudly.”

The Purple Heart Medal is the oldest American military decoration, created in 1782 by Gen. George Washington. It’s older than the Bill of Rights and was the first decoration made available to an enlisted soldier.

“Why he chose a purple heart, nobody seems to know,” said Marty Martinez, a retired soldier, the founding commander of the local chapter of the Order of the Purple Heart and its current judge advocate. “There are all kinds of rumors.”

The original medal was designated by Washington “not only for instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way.”

The medal disappeared after the Revolutionary War. In 1932, Gen. Douglas Mac-Arthur revived the Purple Heart for the Army out of respect for Washington’s memory.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the medal was opened to all branches of service, and over time, became known as it is today — the medal for those who shed blood on the battlefield, Martinez said. It is probably the most recognizable military decoration to the general public, he added.

Martinez received his Purple Heart from wounds sustained in Vietnam. When describing the incident, he also referred to the men who were with him during the firefight but didn’t make it home.

“You can’t congratulate somebody for a Purple Heart,” Martinez said.

When he sees someone wearing the medal, he likes to ask how they are coming along and how they are healing. “Time tells how you will handle it.”

During a recent road trip to Florida, Cowart said several people noticed his Purple Heart vehicle tags and thanked him for his sacrifice.

“Most people are very curious,” he said. “Most of all, they are very thankful for what I sacrificed. And what they tell me is, they are ... thankful and sorry at the same time.”

Those who receive the Purple Heart are entitled to additional government benefits, such as license plates, and recipients can join the Order of the Purple Heart, a veterans organization similar to Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The local chapter was formed in 1989 and meets once a month in Harker Heights. It has more than 300 members.

“It’s comradeship,” Martinez said of why the group is important to him. “The bonding that we have together. That band of brothers.”

Capt. Ken Spoon, 1st Cavalry Division, joined the order after receiving a Purple Heart in February for wounds from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in July 2011 while serving with the 1st Infantry Division.

He said he’d never thought much about the medal before receiving it.

“You see it growing up as a kid in war movies. You see crazy fighting and action and then you see award ceremonies. I’d wondered what that was like,” Spoon said. “I understand the history of it and where it comes from. ... There’s honor and prestige of knowing who’s worn the medal.”

More information

  • The “Badge of Military Merit,” known today as the Purple Heart is:
  • The first American decoration.
  • The oldest military decoration in the world in present use.
  • Older than the Bill of Rights.
  • The first decoration made available to an enlisted soldier.
  • The forerunner of the Medal of Honor.
  • The costliest medal to manufacture.
  • The one decoration that a person cannot be recommended for, because the award is not based on job performance, military or civilian skills.
  • The only decorations that attest without question to the bearer having been wounded in combat or a terrorist attack.
  • Awarded posthumously to those killed in combat or a terrorist attack.
  • The one award that every military person attempts to elude.
  • Recipients are automatically eligible for interment in Arlington National Cemetery.

Source: The Order of the Purple Heart

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