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Only warriors receive Purple Heart medals, but anyone can join the Purple Heart Trail

By NATALIE GROSS | Special To The Washington Post | Published: October 14, 2019

When you're traveling in either direction along Interstate 95 in Virginia, you will likely pass more than one sign featuring a silhouette of George Washington's head framed by a golden heart. Some have a green background, others are white. And each announces that you're on a "Purple Heart Trail."

As attention-grabbers go, they fall on the subtler side. But the idea is, indeed, to grab your attention — to get people to think, "Wow, I know [the Purple Heart] is a medal, but what exactly is it?" explains retired Army Col. Gordon Sumner. He hopes the signs drive people to Google to learn more about America's oldest military honor.

Sumner is the former head of the greater Washington, D.C., area chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH); he was also one of the original organizers of northern Virginia's Purple Heart Trail in the 1990s. Back then, the trail consisted of a monument at Mount Vernon leading to a walking path, which in turn led to the George Washington Memorial Parkway and, ultimately, I-95.

The trail was one of the first of a network of signs that has since expanded across the country and become a full-blown program of the national MOPH. Today, you can find a Purple Heart designation attached to an eclectic list of entities: There are Purple Heart islands, cities, schools, sports teams, funeral homes, Texas ranches and even a string of Hooters restaurants. At a time when the main organization supporting Purple Heart recipients is losing membership, these many designations could end up being its most visible legacy.

Gen. George Washington gave out the first Purple Heart medals in 1782 to recognize acts of heroism during the Revolutionary War. The honor then went dormant until 1932, the bicentennial of Washington's birth and the year the MOPH was established.

Recipients of the modern Purple Heart must have been wounded or killed in combat. The order is now headquartered in Springfield, Virginia; it has 473 chapters and approximately 48,000 members, all of whom have received a Purple Heart medal since World War II. That's small compared with some of the other better-known veteran service organizations: The American Legion has nearly 2 million members; Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans each have over 1 million.

For MOPH, the pool of eligible members is shrinking. Nearly 58,000 troops have earned the medal since Sept. 11, 2001, including those who have been killed in action, according to the organization. By comparison, there were more than 350,000 Purple Heart recipients in the Vietnam War and over 960,000 in World War II. In recent years, the organization has had more members die than they've been able to recruit, says retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Ernie Rivera, the group's volunteer national adjutant.

The organization supports itself through membership fees and fundraising. But after recent fundraising shortfalls, it announced last year that it would dramatically reduce expenses for its outreach programs, which include services to help veterans file benefits claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Rivera says the group is also reorganizing as it figures out how to best deliver the same services within the confines of its new budget. He says the Purple Heart Trail Program could help in the long run by maintaining public awareness of the organization. "It's not like we're trying to use this program [to raise money]," he explains. "But do I think it's something that can really move us in the right direction? For sure."

There's no formal approval process for participants, but there is one main rule: Cities, businesses and other organizations must write a proclamation explaining why they want a Purple Heart designation. The Virginia General Assembly did this in 2016, making Virginia one of 26 Purple Heart states. Some entities sign on for the good publicity — a motive that doesn't seem to bother the MOPH members I spoke with — while others seek Purple Heart status after seeing a competitor or neighbor receive it. In September, South Kingstown, Rhode Island, became the newest Purple Heart entity, a year after North Kingstown did.

It's the job of Matt Bridges, a Marine Corps veteran and volunteer Purple Heart Trail Program coordinator, to file the proclamations with MOPH headquarters, making the entities' participation official. "People are calling me every day," he told me. While there's no complete tally, since some entities claim the designation without ever sending in a proclamation, Bridges says there are approximately 2,300 entities in the United States and its territories. More than 500 of those have been added since he took over the position in 2017.

What the designation means in practice varies. Some entities do more than put up a sign, Bridges says, citing a few colleges that have set up scholarships for Purple Heart recipients. More often, it's a smaller gesture, such as a free parking spot for veterans. MOPH doesn't police how the Purple Heart designation is used, and some veteran advocacy groups have been troubled by schools that tout their Purple Heart association when they market themselves to prospective military students.

Barrett Bogue, senior communications adviser for the nonprofit Veterans Education Success, calls such practices "a concern" and says that "prospective students should not make the life-changing decision of where to earn a degree based on 'military friendliness.' "

I asked Sumner whether granting Purple Heart designations with hardly any requirements waters down the meaning or undermines the prestige of the medal. "If anything, it brings awareness," he said. "It's the one medal that none of us ever wanted to earn, but, unfortunately or fortunately, some of us have it. And because of that we want to make sure the history is continued."

It could even help a combat-wounded veteran get valuable support, he said. Injured service members probably aren't thinking about joining an organization like MOPH during recovery. But once they get home, Purple Heart signs along the highway or designated parking spaces for them at a store could spark a search for help. "They can look on the sign and [say], 'Maybe I should contact, go online and see where my local Purple Heart chapter is,' " Sumner said. "If nothing else, hopefully it gets them thinking."
 

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