Every August 7, the nation pauses to remember the members of the military who have been recipients of the Purple Heart Award. Its history stretches back to the days of the Revolutionary War. George Washington was forbidden to give his men commissions and promotions by the Continental Congress, but he wanted to honor them somehow, especially the enlisted men. On August 7, 1782 he established the Badge of Military Merit. It was open only to enlisted men and allowed them to pass guards and sentinels the same way commissioned officers did.

There are only three verified recipients of the Badge of Military Merit – Sergeant Elijah Churchill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sergeant William Brown, 5th Connecticut Continental Line Infantry and Sergeant Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry. The names were supposed to be kept in a Book of Merit, but it was lost and never recovered.

In 1932 the Purple Heart as we know it was created to honor Washington’s ideals and to mark the bicentennial of his birth. General Order #3 stated:

… By order of the President of the United States (at the time, Herbert Hoover), the Purple Heart, established by General George Washington at Newburgh, August 7, 1782, during the War of the Revolution is hereby revived out of respect to his memory and military achievements.

By order of the Secretary of War:

Douglas MacArthur

General, Chief of Staff

That May, 136 veterans of WWI received their Purple Heart medals at Temple Hill, in New Windsor, NY. Temple Hill was the site of the final encampment of the Continental Army during the winter of 1782-1783.

Several celebrities have been awarded Purple Hearts during their military service. Actors James Arness, Charles Bronson, James Garner and Rod Serling, writers Kurt Vonnegut and Oliver Stone, and athletes Warren Spahn (Boston/Milwaukee Braves), Pat Tillman (Arizona Cardinals) and Rocky Bleier (Pittsburg Steelers) have all received the award. Animals have been awarded the Purple Heart, in the cases of Sgt. Stubby the dog and Sgt. Reckless the horse.

The first woman to receive a Purple Heart was Lt. Anne G. Fox for her actions as chief nurse at Hickam Field in Hawaii during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Cordelia Cook was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star in 1943 for continuing to treat wounded soldiers after sustaining shrapnel wounds while serving at a field hospital in Italy.

President John F. Kennedy is the only president to date who has received a Purple Heart. He received it as a Lieutenant during WWII after his PT boat collided with a Japanese destroyer near the Solomon Islands and sank in 1943. Even with a badly injured back, he swam three miles to a nearby island, towing a badly injured crew member.

The record for the most Purple Hearts held by one person is 10. Curry Hayes served in the Army during the Vietnam War and was awarded his first Purple Heart after being shot in the arm during an ambush. He returned to the front and in a single assault, dodged multiple grenades and sustained several injuries, including losing two fingers. He received nine more Purple Hearts, one for each wound.

For more information on the Purple Heart award, visit the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor’s website by clicking here.