VA Homeless Programs
Message from Monica Diaz, Executive Director, VHA Homeless Programs Office
So much has changed since 1782.
We have evolved from thirteen colonies to the singular most powerful nation in the world. We have formed an allyship with Britain, established a democratic government, and helped build foundations for new democracies to thrive.
But one thing has been constant: the Purple Heart.
Originally dubbed the “Badge of Merit,” George Washington created the accolade to honor “any singularly meritorious action.” Only three (known) Revolutionary War soldiers received the award—a cloth purple heart worn on the left side of the chest—until United States Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur renamed, redesigned, and reinstated the “Purple Heart” in 1932.
Today’s Purple Heart honors those who have been wounded or killed in action, criteria set forth by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in World War II. Since 2014, Purple Heart Day has been officially observed on August 7 as a day to honor the estimated 1.8 million service members who have received Purple Hearts; 1.8 million Americans did not return to their family members the same, or at all, because they chose to protect all Americans—to protect us.
We know the stories of some recipients well: President John F. Kennedy (the only U.S. President to receive the Purple Heart), General Colin Powell, NFL player Pat Tillman, author Kurt Vonnegut, and Senator John McCain.
Other heroes who have earned this honor are our mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, children, friends, and neighbors. They are our own personal heroes, even if we might not always know the extent of the heroism that earned them the award.
Staff Sergeant Christopher N. Piper’s family and friends do not know all the specifics of his time in Orung-e, Afghanistan, as a Green Beret. With highly classified missions and tasks, few will ever fully understand the circumstances that claimed his life, or the contributions that he made to our national security. But we can all understand why Piper—a native of Marblehead, MA (a small town that played a large role in the Revolutionary War)—was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. We understand that like all Purple Heart recipients, Piper fought for what he believed in with his whole soul.
A few months ago, HPO had the honor of meeting William Nyman, a Korean War Veteran and American hero. When North Korean troops surrounded Nyman’s encampment in the middle of the night on December 1, 1950, he threw off his sleeping bag and stood guard barefoot for hours, fending off the enemy and protecting his unit. Nyman never shared his story with his family or friends; his heroism was revealed only when Veterans Benefits Administration representative Anthony Irby accessed his records this year when coordinating with the homeless program staff at the VA Phoenix Health Care System to support Nyman’s housing needs.
Irby nominated Nyman for a Purple Heart to ensure the Veteran would receive the recognition he deserved. Nyman sadly passed away this year on June 24, 2022, but the lessons he taught us will live on through our continued service to Veterans.
Piper, Nyman, and all Americans who have received the Purple Heart have carried on the oldest and most cherished tradition of our nation. They guarded our independence fiercely. Now, it is our job to guard them, their families, and their legacies fiercely.
Each of you answers this calling every day—you do so with the utmost compassion, fortitude, and respect for our Veterans. You identify and forge pathways to permanent housing that meet the needs and desires of every Veteran, and you find creative solutions to any challenges that present themselves along the way.
In the fiscal year ahead, we will build upon the outstanding progress we achieved in fiscal year 2021-2022. We will house 38,000 Veterans by December 31, and we will increase Veteran awareness of, and access to, VA homeless program services. We will engage landlords and work to expand the number of affordable housing units in America. We will rewrite the narrative of homelessness, shifting the public’s understanding from an inevitable, individual-level problem to a solvable problem borne out of systems failures.
We will remember to take care of ourselves and each other along the way. Next month’s Suicide Prevention Awareness Month is a pertinent reminder that no matter what's ahead, we are never alone, and there is always support waiting.
We will do this work together, and we will do it with all our hearts.
Let’s get to work.