THE Pentagon has decided that the Purple Heart, an honor bestowed on U.S. service personnel who are wounded or killed by enemy action, will not be extended to the many gallant men and women whose scars are psychological. On balance, the decision is the right one, with the weight of history and practicality behind it.
But that's not to say that the news comes easily or without regret. As the New York Times reported after the decision became public, a 2008 Rand Corp. study found that one in five service members, or at least 300,000, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
Are these servicemen any less heroic than those whose scars are perhaps more visible? Of course not, and it would be wrong to look at this decision as confirmation of a stigma, even though it effectively deprives some brave service personnel of a medal for a different sort of wound, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Still, the history of the award simply does not argue for a change.
The Purple Heart is America's oldest military award, instituted by Gen. George Washington in 1782 as the "Badge of Military Merit." It was not at first given primarily for wounds. Washington wrote that it was to reward "not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service "
After the War of Independence, the medal was forgotten for years and was not revived until 1932. It did not specifically come to be linked with wounds until an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942.
But it was never given for psychological stresses suffered as a result of war. Battle fatigue does not qualify, just as physical ailments such as frostbite, trench foot, and disease not directly caused by enemy agents do not qualify.
Yet all of these can be acquired by serving in a war zone. It would be illogical to give a Purple Heart for a war-related mental illness when someone with a physical illness that they would otherwise have been spared at home could not be honored.
There's a further problem: Physical wounds are easier to quantify and judge; mental wounds can be no less real but are sometimes hard to diagnose.
If the Purple Heart is to retain its prestige, it simply can't be open to everyone. That is a stubborn, unfortunate truth, because all who suffer for their country - physically and/or mentally - should be considered heroes and be given the best of care. It's just that not all can be given a Purple Heart.