A growing movement among some mental health and military advocates to award the Purple Heart Medal to sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder continues to spur controversy.
Since its inception in 1932, the Purple Heart Medal has honored a truly special set of service members — those who have suffered physical wounds on the battlefield, and those who lost their lives in combat in defense of our great nation. But it’s evident that combat inflicts mental and emotional wounds as well. Studies indicate that anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have PTSD, the effects of which can be severe and debilitating.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness is arguing that post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues, such as depression, can be classified as war-related injuries. Sufferers should qualify for the Purple Heart “with the same level of appreciation and recognition as those awarded to warriors with visible wounds,” according to the alliance.
The argument isn’t a new one. Debate about PTSD and the Purple Heart reaches back to early this decade and beyond. One thing that’s remained consistently clear is the position of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the Congressionally-chartered veteran service organization behind the honor: A compassionate but firm, “No.”
In 2009, the Pentagon decided not to award the Purple Heart to troops with PTSD. Officials believed this type of mental health concern could be difficult to diagnose and that symptoms could arise at a much later time from issues other than combat.
We could be looking at 80 years worth of “IOUs” if the key phrasing behind the award — “as a result of combat action” — is altered. There have long been injuries on the battlefield that weren’t due to combat action, such as vehicle accidents, friendly fire or exposure to biological agents including Agent Orange.
The Military Order of the Purple Heart has long supported military men and women who received the Purple Heart Medal for wounds suffered in combat. They were willing to share their thoughts with the Veterans United Network and below is the group’s official statement:
“As an organization that is composed solely of Purple Heart recipients, we have supported fully the Pentagon’s decision not to award the Purple Heart for PTSD. Obviously, we are very sympathetic to those who suffer this terrible disorder. You can hardly find anyone who has served in combat, and especially those who have been wounded in combat, that doesn’t return with some form of PTSD. In recent years, the Military and the VA have become much more aware of its effects and are expanding and improving their treatment of PTSD.
“The criteria for this particular medal, however, is the suffering of physical wounds on the battlefield as the result of combat action by the enemies of the United States. Moreover, PTSD is a treatable disease — loss of a limb, or any combat wound for that matter, is permanent. And, what about those who feign the illness just to receive VA medical treatment; or, what about a group who witnesses a battlefield trauma together, but only one or two suffer from PTSD; should they all receive the Purple Heart?”
Studies Signaling Change?
Defense Department officials may have no choice but to revisit the 2009 ruling, as current brain studies are focusing on the link between traumatic brain injury and PTSD. If these microscopic brain injuries result from a blast wave or other physical trauma, the Pentagon may conclude that the Purple Heart should be awarded in at least those cases.
I believe that PTSD is a very serious issue that requires our utmost attention, but I also feel that it doesn’t fall under the Purple Heart Medal requirements. Physical injuries and emotional trauma are both important in their own right, but lumping them under one award devalues both issues. Not to mention it severely deflates the significance of the Purple Heart Medal.
I also think this could build a divide between veterans and between the services. Is an Army soldier or Marine with a Purple Heart from a physical wound going to relate to an Airman or Seaman with a Purple Heart from PTSD? It’s not to say that one is more important than the other, but it could definitely damage interservice relationships. Also, would a change to the Purple Heart disgrace those who have come before us? It’s a slippery slope.
There will be a multitude of opinions on the issue, but officials should remember that it’s the opinions of the veterans, especially those who already carry the Purple Heart designation, that should matter the most.
Photo courtesy of 807MDSC