purple heart medal history

History and Meaning of the Purple Heart

Like all military medals, the Purple Heart is earned through acts of valor, bravery, courage, and fearlessness. Being awarded the Purple Heart Medal is an unforgettable experience intertwined with history, tradition, and a remembrance of the sacrifices for our country.

The Purple Heart is awarded to troops that have been wounded, killed, by enemy fire, or were a former Prisoner or War. Purple Heart recipients have unique stories and experiences that are memorable and unforgettable. The stories are deep and personal and can move you to tears in an instant.

Recognizing and honoring the dignity of the service is important for civilians, veterans, retired military, and active duty alike.


The meaning of the Purple Heart Medal is a meaning that is rich in American tradition, history, and carries the sentiments of troops going back to the 1700s. The Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart’s origin and inspiration, was established by George Washington in 1782, and was the first award that could be earned by anyone that was enlisted.

“Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity, and essential service in any way, shall meet with a due reward…the road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus opened to all” is a part of the declaration George Washington put forth as requirements to earn the Badge of Military Merit, the former version of the Purple Heart medal.

history of the purple heart

There were three recipients of the Badge of Military Merit before the award went obsolete for 150 years:

  • Sergeant William Brown, 5th Connecticut Regiment
  • Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Regiment Light Dragoons
  • Sergeant Daniel Bissell, 2nd Connecticut Regiment

On George Washington’s 200th birthday, February 22, 1932, the Purple Heart Medal was reinstated by a Congressional Act. It was redesigned by Elizabeth Will with the likeness of George Washington and the original Badge of Military Merit and that design is the Purple Heart Medal as we know it today.

Purple Heart Day is observed August 7th of each year. This tradition started in 2014 and is not a national holiday, but a day for us to pause and remember those who have sacrificed their lives for our country.

Heraldic Meaning

The Purple Heart hangs from purple and white draping, featuring a purple center with two white stripes on either end of the draping, reflecting the purple heart and white border the Badge of Military Merit had. The medallion of the Purple Heart is a purple colored heart with a gold outline and has the profile of George Washington in the center.

Directly above Washington’s profile is his family crest, a shield with three red stars and two red stripes.

The back of the Purple Heart is inscribed with “For Military Merit” and has a raised heart, reminiscent of the Badge of Military Merit that had “Merit” across the front of the badge.

Veterans that qualified for the Purple Heart Medal while it was inactive were awarded the medal, some posthumously, after the medal was reinstated in 1932.

Decorations and Precedence

The Purple Heart is awarded after the Bronze Star Medal and is before the Defense Meritorious Service Medal. Just like other medals, the Purple Heart Medal has devices awarded determined by branch of service.

The Army and the Air Force are awarded bronze and silver oak leaf clusters and the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are awarded gold or silver stars.

The Purple Heart Medal has been awarded to almost two million troops, one million of whom were during World War II, civilians, and even a horse that served with the U.S. Armed Forces in Korea, Staff Sergeant Reckless.

Now the Purple Heart Medal is reserved for military personnel, and any civilian injured or killed in the line of duty is awarded the Defense of Freedom Medal. This was a declaration from the Department of Defense, urged by the Military Order of the Purple Heart, in 1997. Many civil service and civilian recipients of the Purple Heart were awarded the medal during the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

Purple Heart Organizations

Military Organization of the Purple Heart

The Military Organization of the Purple Heart is a congressionally chartered veteran organization for veterans and active duty troops that have received the Purple Heart.

Military Organization of the Purple Heart, commonly known as MOPH, financially and emotionally supports Purple Heart recipients by funding scholarships, bringing awareness to legislative issues impacting veterans, supporting health programs, and suicide awareness.

MOPH has many branches that are used for awareness, fundraising, and veteran support towards health issues like PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injuries, and veteran suicide rates, and combating veteran homelessness.

The Purple Heart Foundation is the fundraising arm of the MOPH. Their efforts go towards “providing counsel, a wide range of support, and unwavering advocacy. And a good measure of love”, says their website.

The Purple Heart Foundation’s website states that the money they fundraise goes towards:

  • Programs to help veterans recover and prosper when they return home
  • Research unseen wounds impacting veterans like PTS, Post Traumatic Stress, TBI, traumatic Brain Injury, suicide, and sexual abuse
  • National Service Offers program, the program assists veterans with education opportunities, scholarships, disability compensation, employment training, hospitalization, pensions, and rehabilitation benefits.
  • Full-time attorney to protect the interests of wounded servicemen and servicewomen and presenting veterans’ claims before court
  • Legislative advocacy for policies impacting veterans

Purple Hearts United

Purple Hearts United works towards reuniting lost or stolen Purple Heart Medals to their rightful owner or their families. The Purple Heart Medal is, like all war medals, treasured and has a deep meaning and value to the veteran and their family.

Medals can be lost in moves, estate sales, or sometimes stolen. Purple Hearts United has even had medals turn up in “storage lockers, abandoned houses…confiscated in robberies… and found in old furniture and vehicles”.

Purple Hearts United created a database of names of veterans with lost Purple Hearts and other medals. This database is the “Lost Hearts Database” that employees of the Purple Hearts United use as references for research and outreach to find the owner or the owner’s family.

The Purple Heart is awarded to troops that are wounded, killed, who has passed, or may pass of wounds received from enemet force while in armed combat, international terrorism, or being a Prisoner of War. The Purple Heart is the military’s oldest decoration and is held closely to its recipients and their families. It represents the ultimate sacrifice anyone can make for our country and bravery beyond compare.