The official reasons for awarding the Purple Heart to members of the US military are straight-forward: "Being wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces."
Thousands have been awarded during US combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands in earlier wars.
But in what’s come to be known as the “war on terror” – conflict that knows no time limit or geographic boundaries – deciding who is eligible to receive the Purple Heart becomes more subjective. The “enemy” in this case probably doesn’t wear uniforms, and they may not be part of another nation’s “opposing armed force.”
Does being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – severe mental and emotional damage related to the horrors of war – qualify? So far, the condition known in earlier times as battlefield fatigue, shell shock, and (during the Civil War) “Soldier’s Heart” does not qualify for the award even though those experiencing the condition say it’s not a “disorder” at all but a war-related wound as debilitating as any physical injury.
And what about US military personnel killed or wounded on US soil as the result of a terrorist attack? Here, the picture is mixed.
Troops injured at the Pentagon in the terrorist attack on Sept. 1, 2001, were awarded the Purple Heart, the Military Times reports, but two Army recruiters shot by a radicalized Muslim outside of a recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2009 did not.
The shooter was Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, convicted in a court-martial of premeditated murder and attempted murder and now facing the death penalty.
He’d been in e-mail contact with Islamic militant Anwar al-Awlaki, who was later killed in a US drone attack in Yemen. Al-Awlaki had described Hasan as “a hero … a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.” An al Qaeda spokesman described Hasan as “one righteous Muslim … a pioneer, a trailblazer and a role-model.”
But to the FBI and US military investigators that did not mean Hasan’s violent act was connected to a terrorist group. It was classified as “workplace violence” even though a US Senate report called it “the worst terrorist attack on US soil since September 11, 2001.”
In the years since Hasan’s deadly attack, there’s been a growing effort to award the Purple Heart to those killed and wounded at Ft. Hood, and now it seems likely to happen, which the Defense Department has resisted.
In a letter last year, the Pentagon wrote that awarding the medal to Fort Hood victims could “irrevocably alter the fundamental character of this time-honored decoration.” Defense Department officials expressed concern that declaring Hasan a terrorist would “undermine the prosecution,” which eventually led to his conviction and death penalty.
“Ultimately, such an unprecedented action [awarding Purple Hearts in this case] would thwart the real and lasting measure that will bring closure to the grieving and harmed victims and families – the trial itself,” Pentagon officials wrote.
But a major defense spending bill passed in the House last week and headed to a Senate vote this coming week calls for the Purple Heart to be awarded to “members of the armed forces killed or wounded in domestic attacks inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.” The key words here are “inspired by.”
It’s likely to pass in the Senate, most observers believe, and it is unlikely to be vetoed by President Obama. In addition to the medal, recipients and their families would be eligible for other military benefits as well, including financial benefits and priority care at Veterans Affairs facilities.
“This legislation acknowledges that the people who lost their lives and were wounded at Foot Hood … were victims of a domestic terrorist attack,” Sen. John Cornyn, (R) of Texas, said. “They are entitled to this recognition and these benefits, no less than our military deployed overseas fighting in the war on terror.”