By Bill Robinson
The Purple Heart is the oldest American military decoration that is still ordered. It was established in August 1792 by George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, after Revolutionary War hostilities had ended. Originally called the Military Badge of Merit, the name of the purple heart-shaped award was better known by the more common moniker based on its shape and color.
The heart shape was chosen to symbolize courage, and the color has been associated with royalty since ancient times.
After World War I, in which an estimated 250,000 Purple Hearts were presented, the award was redesigned to include George Washington’s image with the color and shape retained. The new award was re-issued by presidential order on the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, Feb. 22, 1932.
During World War II, Congress limited awarding of the Purple Heart to military personnel killed or wounded in combat. Previously, it could be awarded for meritorious service well as for death or wounds suffered in combat. More than 960,000 were awarded in WWII.
The Military Order of the Purple Heart, which calls itself the only organization made up only of combat veterans, was organized to foster good will and camaraderie among those wounded in combat and to serve them and their families.
Among its efforts to honor those wounded in combat is to have each state designate an interstate highway as a Purple Heart Trail and to have locations proclaimed Purple Heart Cities.
Interstate 64 in Kentucky was designated a Purple Heart Trail in 2003, and earlier this year Richmond was proclaimed a Purple Heart City through an agreement with the city commission and the Military Order of the Purple Heart.
That news would have been gratifying to John R. Burch, a former commander of the order in Kentucky, his wife Betsy Burch says. A career soldier who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, he was twice wounded in that conflict.
The Harrison County native lived the last 13 years of his life in Richmond. He died April 28 at age 66.
The Purple Heart order, along with the other veterans organizations he belonged to were important to him, she said. Burch loved associating with and being of service to those who shared his love and devotion to America, his wife said.
For more about the Purple Heart award, including other local veterans who earned it, see the special veterans tribute section inside this edition of the Richmond Register.