Purple Heart Appreciation Day, Aug. 7, is a date to remember and honor those who have been wounded or killed in service to the United States. But at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in New Windsor, N.Y., that commemoration happens every day.
Afghanistan veteran Capt. Aristeas K. Tzovaras will receive the Purple Heart at 2 p.m. Aug. 10 at the Hall. Lt. Col. Mark Baaden, who received the Purple Heart last year and served under Tzovaras, will present it. The ceremony will honor all recipients, living and deceased, and include sharing the stories of 10 other recipients representing the five branches, from the Civil War to the present.
"Stories are important," said Peter Bedrossian, program director at the Hall. "Those individuals who served ... and were wounded or killed could have stayed home for the most part. It's a debt that we owe, frankly .... The fact that they've survived some of these things - that's incredible and should be chronicled."
Purple Heart Appreciation Day marks the anniversary of President George Washington's order creating the Badge of Military Merit, an honor and award bestowed upon enlisted men in lieu of promotion. At the time Congress forbade promotions, as they were strapped for funds. Though Washington said he wanted it to be permanent, "the war ends, people go home, it was forgotten," Bedrossian said.
It was not until the wake of World War I and the beginning of the Depression that the call for an award like Washington's would gain momentum again. In 1932, Gen. Douglas MacArthur coined the term "Purple Heart," and the first awards were given to World War I veterans as well as those veterans of previous wars who had received "wound chevrons" or certificates of merit.
Where the Hall stands today, 138 men - 137 Army veterans and one Marine - were presented with the Purple Heart on May 28, 1932.
"What began here 82 years ago to recognize sacrifice continues today," Bedrossian said. Now, only those servicemembers wounded or killed in action receive the award.
But it's not just this sweeping history, but personal histories, that the Hall hopes to honor. An estimated 1.8 million veterans have been awarded the Purple Heart, but there is no full official list of recipients. The Hall hopes to change that.
The Hall collects names, narratives and photos of recipients for its Roll of Honor, a searchable database that includes about 195,000 names - an impressive number, but one that only represents about 11 percent of the total.
"Our mission is to collect, preserve and share the stories of Purple Heart recipients," Bedrossian said.
Though simple, the cause is an urgent one.
"As people pass away, oftentimes their history dies with them," Bedrossian said. "People tend to have short memories. There is a great deal of sacrifice in terms of human capital in terms of the past 250 years and counting."
Getting the word out can be a challenge. Most enrollees hear about the Roll through word-of-mouth and veterans organizations, though sometimes airtime is donated for a public service announcement.
But the Roll of Honor does include recipients from all 50 states and all branches of service. It even lists one Australian who served during Vietnam under Army command.
More than 20,000 visitors come to the Hall annually to learn about the history of the Purple Heart, connect with the past and better understand recipients.
Bedrossian said the great-grandniece of a World War I veteran made the trek because she'd heard his Purple Heart had been donated to the Hall. She hadn't seen it since she had attended the presentation where he received it in 1932.
Another niece contacted the Hall to get her two uncles included on the Roll of Honor. For verification, the Roll requires documentation; however, the documentation for one of the uncles had been destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. She wrote to the Army and they gave her his full record. She learned that he had in fact been awarded not one but two Purple Hearts, and in the action that took his life he was awarded the Bronze Star for valor.
"From 1944-2010, in effect his record was open. His case wasn't closed," Bedrossian said.
War buddies reconnecting with the stories of comrades, young people finding ancestors, genealogists lending anecdotes to names, a mother looking at her son's profile - it's these kinds of moments and realizations that Bedrossian said are among the most rewarding.
"I often get to meet the people who made the history," he said. But another rewarding aspect "is being able to share it ... More significantly is that 'aha!' moment for the person who comes in here."
He said he continues to be amazed by the recipients. One, he said, noted, "I am merely the custodian for those who cannot be here."
If you or someone you know is a Purple Heart recipient and would like to be included in the Roll of Honor, please call the Hall at (877) 284-6667 [28-HONOR] for a hard-copy application, or visit www.thepurpleheart.com.
"Unlike most historic facilities, our collection grows every day as the mail comes in," Bedrossian said. And, he said, the staff is happy for that. "I'm the first generation of my family since the French and Indian War that did not contribute to war, and this is a way for me to say thank you every single day."
[Brig. Gen. Dwayne Edwards pins Purple Heart on Lt. Col. Mark Baaden at ceremony Aug. 8, 2013, at the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor. | Photo courtesy of National Purple Heart Hall of Honor]