Note: This post is dedicated to the memory of Chief Special Warfare Operator and Purple Heart Recipient Brian Bill (NU 2001). A proud member of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group (aka SEAL Team 6), Brian was killed in Afghanistan one year ago today with 17 of his team mates and 20 others when his CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down by enemy fire. You are not forgotten.
The Purple Heart is one of the most widely recognized medals awarded to members of the U.S. military. The Medal of Honor is a close second, but since the individual services have slightly different versions and the Purple Heart is one of the few medals that remains consistent across all branches (not to mention it’s purple and heart-shaped), I’m guessing that the Purple Heart squeaks out a victory in the “most recognizable” category.
So, what is the price of a Purple Heart?
Blood, spilled in battle. And sometimes death.
“The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the armed forces of the U.S. who are wounded by an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy and posthumously to the next of kin in the name of those who are killed in action or die of wounds received in action. It is specifically a combat decoration.”
However, if you’d like to skip all that you can just buy one for $26.99 like I recently did. Let me explain…
One of the common denominators among the Norwich alumni featured in my next book, Norwich Heroes, is the Purple Heart. That, and the fact that it’s so widely recognized, made it a no-brainer for inclusion on the book cover. But when Michael McLain (same artist who created the cover for Norwich Matters on the right side of your screen) first mentioned the idea to me I scratched my head and wondered how I could get my hands on one. Since it’s not the kind of thing you ask to borrow, I hopped in the car and drove to the nearest Army Navy Store.
About 20 minutes later I was standing in front a large glass case filled with medals, ribbons, and other regalia including a brand new Purple Heart. An employee walked over and asked if he could help me.
“Yes, I’d like to see the Purple Heart, please,” I said calmly while inside I was cringing.
I flipped it over quickly, checked to verify “For Military Merit” was engraved on the back, and started walking toward the cash register. I put the medal on the counter and reached for my wallet. The same guy who helped me at the display case now appeared behind the counter. He looked at me and paused. I felt like a minor buying a twelve pack. Surely he was about to ask me for my orders or a citation proving that I was authorized to wear the Purple Heart. Or maybe he was going to thank me for my service and sacrifice. Or maybe he’d just ask something boorish like “what happened to you?” Instead, he asked me if I needed anything else. Two minutes later I was out the door with no questions asked.
The Stolen Valor Act was brought to Congress by Representative John Salazar (D-Colorado) and Senator Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota). Basically, the law made it illegal to misrepresent oneself as having earned military decorations. It was easily passed by the House and Senate, signed into law in 2006, and had the full support of the Bush and Obama White Houses. Regardless, it was struck down and declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States on June 28, 2012 (see United States v. Alvarez).
Fine. I get it. The highest court in the land has spoken. But while I consider myself somewhat of a civil libertarian, this decision doesn’t sit well with me. (Note: The irony here is not lost on me either. I understand that upholding the law would have precluded me from purchasing the medal outright. In which case I would have made alternate plans). But we don’t necessarily need laws to fight these contemptuous miscreants because store owners still have the option of screening customers or, at least, discouraging and shaming them. For example, if I owned a store that sold medals I’d display the following sign at the display case:
Buying a combat award today? If so, please help us protect the sanctity of your service by verifying your credentials.
The mere presence of the sign would discourage the overwhelming majority of would-be valor thieves.
Asking vendors to voluntarily screen their customers is obviously not a magic bullet. The government could ban unauthorized production of medals, carefully number each one they award, and there would still be successful impostors. But we can likely discourage most of the less dedicated wannabees by posting a sign and asking a few questions at the point of sale (websites would obviously need to tweak this approach appropriately but, again, just asking for details would discourage most). Just because SCOTUS says their despicable actions are protected under the constitution doesn’t mean we have to make it easy for them.
Servicemen and women awarded the Purple Heart deserve our gratitude, respect, and courtesy. But we also have a responsibility to protect the sanctity of the award by discouraging and publicly shaming those who desecrate its legacy in any way. And we don’t need laws to do that.
End Note: At the behest of the White House the Department of Defense recently launched the DOD Stolen Valor Database. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.