My wife, Nancy, is a member of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution ( NSDAR ), founded in 1890. Members of the esteemed organization are “daughter” descendants of Revolutionary war soldiers. Recently I ran across this November/December 2014 issue of the DAR American Spirit magazine.
I was moved by the cover story history of the Purple Heart medallion and a surprising link between two of the most distinguished patriots in our Republic’s history.
The origin of the honor began with George Washington who desired to decorate “common soldiers” for exceptional bravery. An interesting sidebar is that a more typical soldier recognition consisted of a commission or promotion, either of which meant an increase in pay. However, during the last months of the war the Continental Congress ordered Washington to stop promotions as a cost-saving measure! Washington’s alternative, then, was to create this simple cloth badge of Military Merit, worn on the recipient soldier’s sleeve. Washington’s admiration for volunteer soldier’s service and bravery was communicated by his eloquent eligibility requirements: “before this favour can be conferred on any man,
the particular fact, or facts, on which it is to be granted must be set forth to the commander-in-chief company with certificates from the commanding officers of the Regiment and brigade to which the candidate for reward belong, or other incontestable proofs …”.
Records of initial recipients were largely destroyed but there are records of the first three; their deserving deeds: spying, destruction of enemy war materials and a successful sergeant-led Yorktown raid. Though Washington had ordered the Badge of Merit as a permanent decoration it was never awarded again after the revolution. In the early 1900s following World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing and subsequently US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Charles P. Summerall proposed resurrecting the award but the proposals were not adopted by Congress. Summerall’s successor, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had the medallion redesigned and adroitly maneuvered around Congress by succeeding in getting Pres. Herbert Hoover to issue an executive order reviving the honor and renaming it the Purple Heart. Initially reserved for Army and Army Air Corps decoration, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized all services for eligibility.
As you can see here the current design honors the original “Purple Heart” commission with a relief bust of George Washington and his coat of arms. Today, of course, the medallion is awarded for meritorious service as well as war wounds; more than 1.8 million have been bestowed.
Maybe the power of this story on honoring soldiers … for me it was the likemindedness of leaders Washington and MacArthur … that they understood the merits of expressions that communicated their love and respect for the soldier commitment – those who put themselves in harm’s way. Whether in business, philanthropy or member associations, the leader’s ownership of the decoration – artistry and message – has equal relevance in any contemporary mission or campaign.