VA and the Purple Heart - the nation's oldest military award - VA History Office
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VA History Office


VA and the Purple Heart - the nation's oldest military award

Purple Heart

On August 7, 1782, General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, created the “Badge of Military Merit” (Badge) to recognize regular soldiers and non-commissioned officers who demonstrated "not only instances of unusual gallantry in battle, but also extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way,” during the American Revolution. 

By that summer, the war had been waged for more than 7 years, and the Continental Army had experienced thousands of casualties and losses. Existing records of the time show that General Washington personally awarded the Badge of Military Merit – which he designed in “the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk, edged with narrow lace or binding” – to three non-commissioned officers. It would not be awarded for another 150 years – until the bicentennial of Washington’s birth on February 22, 1932.

On that date, in honor of General Washington’s memory and military achievements, United States (U.S.) Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur, announced that World War I Veterans who had been wounded or received a Meritorious Service Citation, were eligible to receive the Badge, renamed “Purple Heart.” General MacArthur, who was instrumental in reviving the nation’s oldest military decoration, oversaw its redesign to the modern Purple Heart known today – a bronze-bordered purple heart-shaped medal bearing Washington’s profile and coat of arms – and received Purple Heart No. 1.

On December 3, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9277, extending applicability of the Purple Heart to all U.S. Military Services, and designating the award for those were wounded, killed or died as a result of wounds received in action, rather than for meritorious service.

Over the years, Congress and the President have continued to authorize changes to the eligibility criteria for award of the Purple Heart, based on medical conditions, conflicts, and other events. These include expanding eligibility to military personnel and government civilians killed or wounded in international terrorist attacks after March 28, 1973; servicemembers killed or wounded in action by friendly fire; and former prisoners of war who were wounded before April 25, 1962. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 1998 limited the award to only servicemembers of the Armed Forces. Most recently, the NDAA for FY 2015 expanded eligibility to servicemembers killed or wounded in attacks against the U.S. by foreign terrorist organizations.

Since 1932, an estimated 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been awarded to servicemembers in the name of the President of the United States.

At a congressional hearing held February 26, 2019, then VA Secretary Robert L. Wilkie announced a change to the VA claims process, stating, “Those who hold the Purple Heart, the recognition of wounds taken in battle, will now receive priority consideration when it comes to claims before the Department of Veterans Affairs.” The VA Veterans Benefits Administration amended its priority processing categories to include initial disability claims received from Purple Heart recipients on or after April 1, 2019.

Purple Heart History Quiz

1. Why did General George Washington use the color purple for the heart-shaped figure in his Badge of Military Merit?

2. Who was the only U.S. President to have received the Purple Heart?

3. This decorated World War II soldier earned his Purple Heart after being wounded in combat in the Philippines. He later became an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, television producer, and creator of The Twilight Zone.

4. Which former Secretary of Veterans Affairs, a retired Four-Star General and Army Chief of Staff, was twice wounded in Vietnam and received two Purple Hearts?

5. Name two other Secretaries of the Department of Veterans Affairs who received the Purple Heart.

6. Which former Secretary of State, a retired Four-Star General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was awarded a Purple Heart following his first combat tour in Vietnam?

7. This United States Senator from Illinois and former Department of Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs was the first female double amputee from the Iraq War, where she served as a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. She received her Purple Heart at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

8. During World War II, this Army soldier received three Purple Hearts and all of the Army’s combat awards for valor, including the Medal of Honor, for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers in France, and then spearheading a successful counterattack. He later became a successful actor and died in a plane crash in 1971.

9. She was the first woman to receive The Purple Heart as a result of combat while serving at Hickam Field during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. She was later awarded the Bronze Star.

10. During which conflict were the most Purple Hearts awarded?


By Barbara Matos, Executive Assistant, Office of Acquisition and Logistics, Office of Procurement Policy, Systems and Oversight, who served on detail as a Program Specialist for the VA History Office.

Note: This story was first posted on the VA Insider agency internal platform in August 2020.


The Institute of Heraldry, Office of the Administrative Assistant to the Secretary of the Army,, retrieved July 16, 2020.

Purple Heart July 16, 2020

National Museum of the United States Army retrieved July 16, 2020

8 Things You Need to Know About the Purple Heart Medal, retrieved July 16, 2020

The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon retrieved July 21, 2020

VAntage Point: Purple Heart recipients added to VA priority claim process, March 1, 2019 retrieved July 21, 2020

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs New Release retrieved July 22, 2020


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