The subject has gotten limited debate outside of military circles, but a controversy over award of the Purple Heart has focused attention on the unprecedented nature of the Global War on Terrorism.
The GWOT dates to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and continues to this day. There is even a medal for service in the GWOT, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
The Purple Heart is the nation’s oldest military decoration, though criteria have been revised periodically, as have design and even the name of the medal. Its genesis was in the American Revolution, when it was called the Badge of Military Merit.
Today’s Purple Heart was created on Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington, whose profile is on the medal. Awarding of the Purple Heart was authorized retroactive to April 5, 1917.
In simple terms, it is authorized for members of the armed forces killed or wounded in battle. But as in many aspects of life, that is not as simple as it seems.
How about soldiers killed by “friendly fire,” or injured when hitting the ground in a combat parachute jump, or in a terrorist attack of the type that occurred on 9/11? How about non-members of the military serving on the battlefield, like Red Cross workers or war correspondents?
The rules have evolved. Until 1997, for instance, Red Cross workers and war correspondents were eligible; they no longer are.
The current controversy is over whether the 13 soldiers killed and 32 who were wounded in a rampage by an Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009 should be eligible for the Purple Heart.
Advocates say they were killed or wounded by an enemy, Maj. Nidal Hasan, who said he was motivated by a decision to “switch sides” in what he deemed to be a war against Islam.
But Hasan (now under a death sentence) was a lone wolf, clearly a traitor and a murderer, but not a member of an enemy force. He was a U.S. Army officer.
Those who say the medal is justified correctly argue that Hasan, if not an agent of an enemy force, certainly acted under its influence.
Those who oppose award of the Purple Heart say his targets were victims of workplace violence, not enemy action. Their wish to ensure that the integrity of the Purple Heart is maintained is understandable.
Underscoring the difficulty in making the determination, the American Legion has endorsed award of the medal to the Fort Hood casualties, while the 45,000-member Military Order of the Purple Heart opposes it.
Other veterans organizations, acknowledging that their members are sharply divided, have declined to take a position. I cast my vote with them.
I support the resolve to maintain the integrity of the medal; whether the actions of a lone wolf terrorist meet the criteria is a decision to be made by someone above my (retired) pay grade.
This is the nature of a war with no defined battlefield against an enemy who may wear no uniform, or even the uniform of an ally.
Whatever the decision on award of the Purple Heart in this instance, the issue raises the disconcerting question:
Will the Global War on Terrorism ever really be over, and if so, how will we
know that it is?
(S. L. Frisbie is retired, both from journalism and from a 32-year military career in the active Army and the Florida Army National Guard. His father, a combat infantryman in World War II, was awarded the Purple Heart stemming from his service at the Battle of the Bulge.)