Criteria for the Purple Heart medal seems straightforward: “any action against an enemy of the United States” in which a service member is “wounded or killed” merits the award. But in practice granting of the award is a contentious issue among combat veterans and a charged field for both the wounded and those who judge the wounds.
In Afghanistan, I knew soldiers who earned Purple Hearts for very minor wounds sustained in combat. Bruises and small lacerations that required no stitches were technically eligible, and soldiers who received them were rightly issued the medal. But technical criteria aside, most soldiers look down on awards given for minor injuries, arguing that doing so cheapens the Purple Heart’s significance for those who were killed or more gravely wounded.
Today, even while the Department of Defense wages a full-scale campaign to educate service members on the legitimacy of mental health injuries caused by war, many veterans are still discouraged from seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by a fear of being stigmatized. Current DoD policy, though a step in the right direction, has not been enough to change a culture, both in and outside the military, that still views PTSD as somehow less real than physical traumas.
Given these DoD attempts to promote understanding within the ranks that PTSD is a legitimate product of war, the question before us is this: should PTSD meet the criteria for the Purple Heart?
When I posed this question to a wide range of veterans from Vietnam to Afghanistan they universally answered “NO,” PTSD does not merit the Purple Heart. I myself shared their opinion, until I began to investigate the issue more closely and found that the reasons cited for denying Purple Hearts for PTSD were fundamentally flawed and inconsistent with other military award practices.
The first issue of contention with PTSD is whether it’s a real “wound”, but the answer to this is obvious and well documented by the fact that more combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan die from suicide related to wartime service and mental health issues, than from enemy bullets and bombs. That should offer grave and definitive proof that PTSD is very real and that its consequences can be as deadly as an IED.
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