Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Military Order of the Purple Heart

This morning came an ordinary telephone call, the voice of an ordinary middle-aged woman, a voice like a neighbor’s, not mellifluous like soliciting voices tend to be: “This is Purple Heart calling. Would you have something to contribute? We’re coming by in two weeks.” The answer, in this house, is always “Yes.” “Fine. I’ll give you a reminder call a couple of days before.”

George Washington himself devised the Purple Heart as a decoration for soldiers in 1782. It was to be “the figure of a heart in purple cloth or silk edged with narrow lace or binding” — a little heart-shaped piece of cloth for merit. Why did Washington come up with this? Just before he published the general order instituting this reward, Washington had received orders from the Continental Congress ordering him to cease promoting soldiers for merit or to grant them commissions. And why did the Congress so order? It had run out of money. But merit should be recognized—or so George Washington thought. A little piece of cloth would symbolize it. And the Purple Heart was born.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart dates to 1932. It is an organization composed solely of the recipients of the decoration, and its mission was “to foster an environment of goodwill and camaraderie among combat wounded veterans, promote patriotism, support necessary legislative initiatives, and most importantly, provide service to all veterans and their families.”

The Order operates a good many programs—of which my caller belongs to the Service Program. This program consumes $6 million of the Order’s total budget of $9 million annually. It operates 70 offices, has a staff of 100 people, and collects clothing, shoes, books, appliances, and other items of value offered for sale in its shops. Unassuming, professional, barely noticed—and serving the needy well, well beyond people who have received this military distinction. The Order also has educational, memorial, scholarship, youth, and first responder programs, the last serving the families of law enforcement officers and fire fighters who have died in the line of duty. So many, many aspects of the core values of America are like that, like Purple Heart: quiet, but vigorously active.

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