2008-07-04 / Columnists

It's My Turn

July Fourth And The Purple Heart
By Stephen Yaeger

Rockaway resident Stephen Yaeger is a frequent contributor to The Wave as the columnist for Drawing On Science For Children. He is also a talented children's author and artist.

My wife and I, together with friends, took a trip to Vermont at the beginning of June. Our first stop was Queechee, Vermont to see Queechee Gorge known as the "Grand Canyon of Vermont." It was the third time we've visited this magnificent site, but unfortunately it was raining and I never had the chance to walk down into the canyon to study its geology. While staying at a local inn, I spotted an American flag that was waving in the wind on a flagpole nearby. It looked as though it was there for many months, uncared for, as it was torn and ragged.

The following day we set out for Montpelier traveling north on the Vietnam Memorial Highway Interstate 89 when we unexpectedly came upon the extraordinary Vermont Vietnam Veterans Memorial in a visitors center, which is just 138 miles from the Canadian border. This part of the interstate was used by draft dodgers and became known as the "road less traveled" by Vietnam veterans. The 138 miles is symbolic of the 138 names that appear on a Vermont granite memorial just outside of the center. We learned that it was the first government sanctioned memorial honoring Vietnam Veterans and since its dedication on October 30, 1982 there has been an all-night vigil held every Memorial Day evening. A clean American flag was flying proudly on the site.

When we arrived in Montpelier we visited the Vermont History Museum. While I was studying an exhibit on WWII, a docent was giving some school children a bit of WWII history. I mention these two incidents because they both occurred on June 6, the 64th Anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Unfortunately the docent never informed the kids of the significance of this date. As a matter of fact neither newspapers nor the local TV stations mentioned the June 6, 1944 invasion - at least none of those that I read or watched. Coincidently when we returned back home, I obtained The Wave and realized that our local paper, too, never mentioned the June 6, 1944 Normandy Invasion date, although it was the June 6, 2008 issue.

In any case, on the way back home we were traveling south on NY300 when I spotted a sign reading "The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, 1.4 miles." This was also unexpected, but we did turn onto the site and saw a clean, low lying building. The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor gives tribute to all Purple Heart recipients and, when possible, preserves their stories for future generations. It's located near the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic site. This was the location of the last encampment of General Washington's Army in December 1782 consisting of some 600 log huts (this was known as a "cantonment" or military enclave) and 500 "camp followers" (women and children). It was here, on April 19, 1783, that Washington issued the cease-fire orders ending the War of Independence.

On the building's right is a flower design in the shape of a purple heart with yellow border. An American flag waves proudly at the top of its pole. There's a stone monument alongside the path leading to the building's entrance with an engraved poem reading:
My stone is red
For the blood they shed.
The medal I bear
Is my country's way
To show they care.
If I could be seen
By all mankind,
Maybe peace will
Come in my lifetime.
The entrance to the building leads into an eye-catching lobby with many photographs and displays including one of three existing Revolutionary War Military Badges of Merit, a precursor to the Purple Heart. The History Wall presents a time-line of sacrifices made by our men in uniform. There are interactive computer and video data bases, photographic images of war, and a comfortable theater showing a 15 minute film, "For Military Merit: The Purple Heart."

I was especially interested in this site as I had completed two First Day Cover (FDC) cachets for the newly released 41 cent Purple Heart Stamp some weeks prior to our trip. My aim was to create two cachets that would honor the sacrifices of our military heroes. One cachet depicts a Revolutionary War soldier with the Badge of Military Merit on his left and a modern day soldier with the Purple Heart on his right. The other cachet has a Bald eagle holding the Purple Heart with the national flag as a background. Ironically, after we returned from our trip, I learned that the engraved stone monument was unveiled and dedicated following the unveiling of the new Purple Heart Stamp on the site of the Hall of Honor. There was a 37 cent and 39 cent Purple Heart Stamp previous to this one. (There is a move on to convince the US Postal Service to make this new issue a second "forever" stamp.)

The Purple Heart has its roots in an August 7, 1782 declaration by General George Washington wherein he ordered that "…whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth…." The badge had the word, "Merit" on its face. Purple was chosen as the color because it was the color of royalty. It was awarded to at least three Continental soldiers. After the Revolution the Badge of Military Merit, as it was called, fell into disuse.

On October 10, 1917, then Army Chief of Staff General Charles P. Summerall asked Congress to revive the Badge of Military Merit, but no action was taken and materials concerning the subject were stored away. Fourteen years later on January 7, 1931, General Douglas MacArthur, who succeeded General Summerall, proposed that a new medal be issued on the bicentennial of Washington's birth. Elizabeth Will, an heraldic specialist in the Office of the Quartermaster General of the US Army, designed the medal now known as the Purple Heart and on Febuary 22, 1932 the War Department's General Order No. 3 stated, "By order of the President of the United States, 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."

In 1932 some 150 World War I veterans and a handful of Civil War Union veterans were awarded the medal. As of this date, the Purple Heart Medal has been awarded to more than 1.8 million men and women of the US Military either wounded or killed in battle. There is an average of 22 presentations of the Medal every day since September 11, 2001. Along a wall of the Hall of Honor are listed the wars in which the United States participated. Included for each war was the number of casualties (wounded or killed) - all receiving the Purple Heart Award.

At the dedication of the Hall on August 7, 2007 (the 225th anniversary of Washington's declaration) keynote speaker Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, Commander of the 3rd Army said, "We are a nation at war," against an enemy that is nationless and hidden and "there will be many more Purple Hearts to be awarded."

Let's remember this when we celebrate the birthday of our nation. On July 4th as on other national holidays we fly the flag to show our pride in the US and to honor those heroes who have either been wounded in protecting it or who have given the ultimate sacrifice to keep it flying. But if we display the flag to show our respect and pride, we should continue to show our respect and pride by doing what is necessary to maintain the flag's honor. The Wave of June 6 printed acceptable rules for displaying the flag. It would be a good idea to read these rules. In doing so we honor true heroes, especially those who have earned the Purple Heart.

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