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Red, White, Blue and Purple

August 7 is Purple Heart Day


by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer

On May 9, 1971, U.S. Army Captain Thomas Smith was co-piloting a military helicopter on a “last light” visual reconnaissance scouting mission in the vicinity of Viet Nam’s U-Mihn Forest, better known to military personnel as the Delta.

During the flight, Smith’s helicopter was directed to make a low-level, high-speed pass at a suspected enemy position to identify the location of potential Viet Cong positions, as well as to conduct a battle damage assessment of the targeted area.

While in the air, Smith’s helicopter received intense, concentrated fire from automatic weapons, sustaining 43 direct hits, including one round that struck him in the leg.

“The round went in and out, breaking my leg in the process,” the now-retired U.S. Army colonel says. “But I was very lucky in that it did not hit any major blood vessels. The orthopedic surgeon said that if that round had gone in one millimeter higher, I wouldn’t have a lower leg.”

Smith was awarded a Purple Heart, and today is the Virginia commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a national organization formed in 1932 for those who have received the military honor. Composed exclusively of Purple Heart recipients, it is the only veterans service organization composed strictly of “combat” veterans.


George Washington awarded the original Purple Heart, designated as the Badge of Military Merit, on Aug. 7, 1782. With a lack of funds in the Continental Army, many believe the award was Washington’s way to honor enlisted and deserving soldiers inexpensively.

Others believe that although Washington was committed to honoring his troops, the original idea for the decoration came from Gen. Baron Von Steuben, one of Washington’s most trusted military associates.

According to Purpleheart.org, the Prussian major general had difficulty in instilling military discipline and order into the Continental army, but nonetheless admired their courage and fighting spirit.

As a veteran of European wars, Steuben wanted Americans to have an award similar to the Cross of St. George that the czar of Russia had recently created. Washington gave out three of the badges himself, and later authorized other officers to issue them as they saw fit.


According to retired U.S. Army Maj. Daniel M. Eddinger, national coordinator for the Purple Heart Trail, the Badge of Military Merit slowly faded into obscurity after the Revolutionary War until February 1932.

A Purple Heart Trail marker in front of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Va.

That’s when an executive order from President Herbert Hoover revived the Purple Heart on the 200th anniversary of George Washington’s birthday. Then-U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur signed off on War Department General Order No. 3, officially renaming the military decoration.

“MacArthur renamed the Badge of Military Merit and called it the Purple Heart,” Eddinger says.

Since 2014, Purple Heart recipients have been honored annually on Purple Heart Day, Aug. 7, as a way for Americans to remember and honor the men and women who represented their country and were wounded or killed while serving. It is estimated that approximately 2 million have been issued to date.

“We will have a Purple Heart Day display in our Robins lobby from Aug. 4 through Aug. 9,” says Suzanne Feigley, multimedia services manager for the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond.

“The display will have a framed copy of the 2016 State Joint Resolutions designating Virginia as a Purple Heart State and Aug. 7th of each year as Purple Heart Day, as well as a copy of a Purple Heart certificate, a description of the history of the Purple Heart and an actual Purple Heart medal from our archives.”

For more, visit purpleheart.org.