PTSD and the Purple Heart

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Just two weeks before the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the Pentagon announced that it would not award the Purple Heart to war veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because it is not a physical injury.

Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said:

Historically, the Purple Heart has never been awarded for mental disorders or psychological conditions resulting from witnessing or experiencing traumatic combat events…Current medical knowledge and technologies do not establish PTSD as objectively and routinely as would be required for this award at this time.

The Purple Heart is awarded “in the name of the President of the United States to any member of the Armed Forces of the United States who, while serving under competent authority in any capacity with one of the U.S. Armed Services after April 5, 1917, has been wounded or killed, or who has died after being wounded.”

And, yes, the regulations specifically include post-traumatic stress disorders in the list of injuries or wounds which do not qualify for award of the Purple Heart.

Today, Tyler E. Boudreau, a former Marine captain and the author of “Packing Inferno: The Unmaking of a Marine,” makes a good case for revisiting this issue.

In a New York Times column “Troubled Minds and Purple Hearts,” , Boudreau pleads, while presenting both sides of the issue:

The Pentagon’s recent decision not to award the Purple Heart to veterans and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress has caused great controversy. Historically, the medal has gone only to those who have been physically wounded on the battlefield as a result of enemy action. But with approximately one-third of veterans dealing with symptoms of combat stress or major depression, many Americans are disappointed with the Pentagon’s decision; many more are downright appalled. As a former Marine infantry officer and Iraq war veteran, I would urge the Pentagon to consider a different solution altogether.

And,

The reality of psychological wounds is becoming harder and harder to deny. That post-traumatic stress can lead to suicide is no longer in question. That far too many of those returning from combat experience deep and long-lasting devastation is irrefutable.

So why not recognize the struggles of these many individuals with a medal? Why, for instance, if a veteran has been given a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress and awarded benefits, should he not also be awarded a Purple Heart? Sadly, as long as our military culture bears at least a quiet contempt for the psychological wounds of war, it is unlikely those veterans will ever see a Purple Heart. That is too bad, I think, because they do deserve all the honor the physically wounded receive.

Boudreau then suggests what I feel is a very reasonable compromise:

But there may be another solution — perhaps a new decoration, a new medal, could be established specifically for those suffering from post-traumatic stress. It would be awarded to those whose minds and souls have been sundered by war.

Boudreau also suggests that this new medal be called “the Black Heart.”

While the name for such a medal can be debated (how about the “Purple Spirit”?), I join Boudreau in urging both President Obama and General Eric Shinseki to ask the Defense Department “to bring about some form of official recognition for these wounded veterans.”

And, while I am “urging,” I would also like to urge President Obama to pick up where Bush, in my opinion, dropped the ball.

That is, in more generously recognizing the heroism of and the sacrifices made by our brave troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After nearly seven years of combat, Bush saw fit to award only five Medals of Honor, our nation’s highest military award for valor, to our Iraq and Afghanistan heroes.

In contrast, there were 245 Medals of Honor recipients during the Vietnam War, and 27 Medals of Honor were awarded for the single World War II battle of Iwo Jima.

There may be some more Medals of Honor “in the pipeline,” but here is a unique opportunity for our new President to recognize the magnificent acts of heroism that surely have been performed by many more than just five of our brave troops.

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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