It was the first American award available to the common soldier. Gen. George Washington created its forerunner, the Badge of Military Merit, in 1782. It was a heart cut from purple cloth and edged with lace.
It fell into disuse after the Revolutionary War but was revived in 1932 to commemorate the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, on orders from Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Today’s medal bears the likeness of Washington on an enameled purple heart, edged in brass and topped with Washington’s family crest and flanking leaves. It is suspended from a purple ribbon with white borders. The back of the medal bears the inscription “For Military Merit” and repeats the Washington crest.
In 1952, President Harry S. Truman extended the award retroactively to fighters in World War I. A decade later, President John F. Kennedy made it available to civilians wounded while serving in some capacity with the U.S. armed forces. That option was withdrawn in 1998 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Recipients don’t have to be recommended for the Purple Heart, as they do for several other military honors. They must be able to document treatment by a medical officer for an injury sustained while attacking or being attacked by hostile forces. Injuries from friendly fire and self-inflicted wounds count, so long as the accident took place while targeting the enemy.
The Purple Heart also can be awarded to those wounded while being held as a prisoner of war, during a terrorist attack, or as a result of military operations while serving as a peacekeeper. Post-traumatic stress disorder and symptoms related to Agent Orange exposure during the Vietnam War don’t qualify.
Those wounded more than once may pin extra oak-leaf clusters to their Purple Heart.
The medal is approved by a person's chain of command, or a hospital commander, and a formal ceremony is held.