One of the most sacred military medals created for service personnel of the United States military is one that can only be “earned” by receiving a wound inflicted by an enemy in combat. Since February 22, 1932 (the 200th anniversary of General George Washington’s birth), the Purple Heart Medal (PHM) has been awarded to members of the U.S. armed forces who sustained combat-related wounds (or were killed in action) on the field of battle, from World War I (retroactively by the veteran’s request) through the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Beautifully sculpted in a gold tear-drop shape with Washington’s bust profile superimposed in a heart-shaped field of purple, the Purple Heart is a highly sought after item for militaria collectors. The medal was a revival of a design of an award that was presented by General Washington in 1782 that was presented to three soldiers during the Revolutionary War as a Badge of Military Merit.
Collecting the medal can be offensive to laymen who can be repulsed by the idea of a collector who treasures something that is specific to the suffering or death of a service member. For me, I have somewhat mixed feelings about the concept.
Prior to departing for my first combat deployment, my father, a Viet Nam veteran, advised me to avoid seeking a Purple Heart as if he was directing one of his young charges back in 1969. Of course, I survived my deployment physically unscathed returning home without the bust of George on my chest.
When I encounter veterans who have been awarded the medal, I have a great deal of respect for them. Not because they were wounded, but that they offered themselves up voluntarily, knowing what the personal cost could be. For those who survive their wounds, the road to recovery can last months, years or a lifetime. World War II war correspondent Keith Wheeler described in horrific detail what that road looks like in his 1945 book, We Are The Wounded, telling of his own experience after being wounded (shot) on Iwo Jima. As a civilian, Wheeler was ineligible to receive the award, but he certainly earned it as what he endured paralleled that of the combat veterans who were medically treated alongside him.
For collectors, at least the ones I know, the medal is sacred. To them, the medal is a representation of the sacrifice made by the recipient denoting significance in personal military history. Over the years as family members and descendants (of those veterans) who have lost personal connection to that history, allow the military items to be sold. Many collectors have revealed that they’ve saved items from garbage cans and dumpsters as they were callously discarded.
Most Purple Heart medals issued through the Viet Nam War are engraved with the recipient’s name affording collectors with the ability to research them and reconstruct the personal history. Several collectors create veteran dossiers for each of the PHMs in their collection displaying them alongside their collection at public Memorial and Veterans Day events, describing the price that was paid by each individual.
I have two PHMs in my collection. One of them is part of the medals that were awarded to my uncle who was wounded in World War I and again in World War II. He also served in the Korean War finishing his service in 1954. The other example is one that I acquired that is an un-engraved (and numbered on the edge) WWII-issue, complete set (including the ribbon and lapel devices) in the presentation cases.
Purple Heart Collections