A Purple Heart war

    America has
    awarded more Purple Heart medals to those who have shed blood in combat
    in Iraq and Afghanistan than at any time since the end of the Vietnam
    War.

    At most recent count, nearly 19,000 U.S. troops have been — or are
    eligible to be — decorated with the medal, which honors the sacrifice
    of those killed or wounded in war.

    That number is a fraction of
    the 220,500 Purple Hearts bestowed by the Army alone on its Vietnam-era
    casualties, but a quantum increase over the 1,160 the service handed
    out in the nearly 30 years from the end of that conflict until the 2001
    war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Nearly half of those given over
    the three-decade span _ 504 _ were awarded to Persian Gulf War wounded
    and dead.

    The continuing combat casualties in Iraq and
    Afghanistan, and the accompanying award of more heart-shaped
    decorations, are bringing new attention to efforts to establish a
    National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New York, as well as to a
    campaign to extend the life of a 37-cent U.S. postage stamp that
    features the medal.

    “We see this as an opportunity to foster
    understanding of the pain people have suffered shedding blood on the
    world’s battlefields,” said Ray Funderburk, spokesman for the Military
    Order of the Purple Heart, which he said is an organization of
    recipients who are “the keepers of the medal.”

    The demand for
    the decoration also has meant a steady stream of work for a small
    factory in Tomball, Texas, where most of the medals are reverently
    assembled by hand.

    There, retired Army soldier and West Point
    graduate Tom Tucker owns Graco Awards Inc., a 70-person operation that
    crafts Purple Hearts one-by-one. The Pentagon has tapped the company to
    make more than 80,000 of the medals, which are among the most intricate
    of all military decorations.

    To assemble each one involves about 100 separate steps. “You can’t manufacture the Purple Heart with a machine,” Tucker said.

    The hearts are forged from 24-karat-gold plated brass, then adorned
    with small sprays of hand-enameled green leaves. A profile bust of Gen.
    George Washington in uniform is attached, along with his red-and-white
    family coat of arms. The heart is hung on purple watered silk ribbon,
    edged with white; this part alone is comprised of eight separate
    components.

    Tucker said he and his employees feel the
    significance of each medal. “It has a lot of meaning to us. We discuss
    that quite often,” he said.

    The path of the Purple Heart to
    Tomball was full of twists. It began in New York in August 1782, when
    General Washington devised a heart-shaped badge to be awarded for any
    “singularly meritorious action” by those in the lower ranks. As such,
    it was the first American award available to the common soldier. But
    after the Revolutionary War, the decoration fell into obscurity.

    An effort to resurrect it after World War I as a heart-shaped “Badge of
    Military Merit” fell flat. In 1931, when a search of Washington’s
    papers prior to the celebration of the first president’s bicentennial
    turned up the original badge, Gen. Douglas MacArthur took on the cause.
    A new one was authorized in 1932, and the association of the medal with
    war wounds began.

    But the Navy balked, considering the
    decoration an Army award. It wasn’t until 1941 that the Purple Heart
    was officially deemed a military-wide medal. In 1952, President Harry
    Truman made it retroactive to the World War I era.

    The identity
    of the first Purple Heart recipient is unknown. And, even today, no one
    can say precisely how many have been distributed. Estimates are that
    1.5 million medals have been awarded, and that about 500,000 awardees
    are still living.

    “We have no idea how many have been given,” Funderburk said.

    Whatever the true total, each one deserves to be honored, and that’s
    what the planned national Hall of Honor would do, he and others say. It
    is slated for the New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Site in New
    York state, where Continental Army officers met in 1783 to determine
    candidates for the original award.

    Funds are still being raised
    for the $5-million, 7,500-square foot facility, which will feature live
    and videotaped interviews with veterans, a contemplative courtyard and
    the opportunity for visitors to leave messages of thanks.

    On
    another front, a battle is underway by the Purple Heart group to
    persuade the U.S. Postal Service to continue to issue the 37-cent
    commemorative Purple Heart stamp even though the cost of a first-class
    stamp has increased to 39 cents.

    Perhaps the greatest threat to
    the sanctity and significance of the Purple Heart comes from the
    medal’s easy availability, Funderburk and others say. Anyone can buy
    one at flea markets, pawnshops or on the Internet, where Web sites
    offer the decoration, no questions asked, for as little as $35. An
    accompanying certificate on onion skin parchment and personalized with
    your name and any rank you choose costs about $25.

    Such commerce
    in the symbols of American courage and sacrifice would be outlawed by a
    measure spearheaded last July by Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo. His “Stolen
    Valor Act” would make it a federal crime to falsely wear the Purple
    Heart and other top military decorations, or to even list them on a
    resume if they were not officially earned.

    But the proposed bill
    now sits in the House Judiciary Committee, and its fate remains
    unclear. “We’re waiting for the committee to act,” said Salazar
    spokeswoman Nayyera Haq.