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COLORADO SPRINGS — For National Purple Heart Day, communities around the country are honoring those wounded on the battlefield and those who have died serving the United States. The Fort Carson military base in Colorado Springs reminds us of the history behind the historic medal.

Originally known as the Badge of Military Merit, the Purple Heart was first awarded to three Revolutionary War Soldiers in 1783 by President George Washington. It is the oldest military award still presented to American service members today.

Unlike most medals, its focus is not the recipient’s bravery or heroism – it is awarded for sacrifice.

A U.S. Army honor guard holds a tray with three Purple Heart medals during a Purple Heart ceremony on June 9, 2015 at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Throughout the years, the medal would go through multiple name and criteria changes.

General Douglas MacArthur, Chief of Staff in 1930, had a newfound interest in the medal. In 1932, MacArthur announced that the Purple Heart was established by Washington in 1782.

When World War II broke out, the U.S. Army awarded more than 78,000 Purple Hearts to veterans and active-duty soldiers, according to U.S. Army Fort Carson.

The army continued to make changes to eligibility requirements for the Purple Heart. Soldiers could only receive the Purple Heart if they were killed in action or died of their wounds from battle. U.S. Army Fort Carson says only 270 Purple Hearts were given, making these medals extremely rare.

Almost a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave authority to the Department of the Navy allowing any Sailor, Marine, Airman, Soldier or Coast Guardsman to qualify for the Purple Heart.

Three American nurses, (L to R), Lt. Barbara Wooster, of Laurel, Maryland; Lt. Ruth A. Mason, of Goshen, New York; and Lt. Ann D. Reynolds, of Dover, New Hampshire wounded in a Christmas eve terrorist bombing of an officers’ billets in downtown Saigon show off their Purple Heart medals to Vietnamese girls here at Navy headquarters, after receiving them. One of them, Lt. Frances L. Crumpton is at Clark AFB in the Philippines, where she is being treated for ear injuries.

During the Vietnam War, the Purple Heart was not allowed to be awarded to any service member involved in the Vietnam War. This was because servicemen in Vietnam were present in an advisory capacity and not as combatants. Since the United States was not formally a participant, no soldiers qualified for the Purple Heart decoration. Later, President John F. Kennedy changed the criteria so that any uniformed personnel who was wounded or killed while serving with friendly foreign forces was eligible for the Purple Heart decoration.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced another new criterion for the Purple Heart. Any of those killed or wounded as a result of an international terrorist attack against the U.S. would be eligible for the medal. Reagan also added that any service member who was killed or wounded outside the territory of the U.S. while serving as part of a peacekeeping mission would be awarded the Purple Heart.

The most recent changes to eligibility for the Purple Heart came in 2011 when the Department of Defense announced any servicemen and women who sustained mild traumatic brain injuries and concussive injuries in combat were eligible. The head injuries are retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001, the day Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Today, the Purple Heart can be awarded to any service member who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity after 1917 is killed or wounded in any of the following:

  • In action against an enemy of the U.S.
  • In action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the Armed Forces of the U.S. are or have been engaged
  • While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party
  • As the result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed force
  • As the result of an act of any hostile foreign force
  • As the result of friendly weapon fire while actively engaging the enemy
  • As the indirect result of enemy action (e.g., injuries resulting from parachuting from a plane brought down by enemy or hostile fire)
  • As the result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the U.S.
  • As a result of military operations outside the United States while serving with a peacekeeping force
  • As the result of a domestic attack inspired by foreign terrorist organizations

More than 1.5 million American men and women have been awarded the Purple Heart since 1932.