‘Purple Heart Day’ honors military’s oldest medal

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WTVQ) – It’s the oldest military honor awarded in the United States.

So it should have its own special today. It does.

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Aug. 7 is “National Purple Heart Day,” recognizing the award to soldiers wounded or killed in combat.

It was established by General George Washington in 1782, according to the White House Historical Commission.

Originally called the “Badge of Military Merit,” Washington declared “any singularly meritorious action performed . . . not only instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service . . . shall be met with a due reward.”

Washington also decreed “the author of it shall be permitted to wear . . . over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth.”

In 1932, in honor of the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, the U.S. Army renamed the award the “Purple Heart” and redesigned it to feature a likeness of General George Washington, his coat of arms, and the inscription: “For Military Merit.”

The Army also revised qualifications for receipt of the award, requiring injury in combat. Since World War II, the award has been expanded to include all branches of the military. according to the White House Historical Commission.

So far, only one American president has received the Purple Heart — President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy served as a lieutenant in the United States Navy during World War II. In 1943, he and his fellow crew members were attacked by a Japanese destroyer while aboard a PT boat near the Solomon Islands.

Kennedy took leadership of rescue operations and led his fellow crew members to a nearby island.

Kennedy carved a coconut with the words “”NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY” alerting locals of their plight.

Though PT-109 sank and two crew members perished, Kennedy’s leadership and courage saved the rest of his crew.

Upon moving to the White House, President Kennedy kept the coconut that saved the lives of his crew members on his desk in the Oval Office as a paperweight.

Kennedy’s Purple Heart medal, as well as his Navy Marine Corps Medal, are a part of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum collection.