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Wounded Veterans Continue to Serve Comrades and Country in the Military Order of the Purple Heart

You can order copies of the Vietnam June 2013 issue, with Rolling Thunder Official Guide included:

With two more combat veterans joining Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in President Barack Obama’s cabinet, three Vietnam War Purple Heart recipients now hold high positions in a presidential administration. Secretary of State John Kerry was awarded his Purple Hearts in 1969 and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel still carries shrapnel in his chest from wounds suffered in 1968.

More than 350,000 Purple Hearts were awarded to those wounded on the battlefields of Vietnam. Many of those recipients will be among the tens of thousands of veterans in Washington this Memorial Day weekend for Rolling Thunder.

Based on the Revolutionary War award of merit created by George Washington, the Purple Heart dates back to 1932, when it was established to honor those wounded in combat—retroactive to World War I. Soon after, the Military Order of the Purple Heart (MOPH) was formed for “the protection and mutual interest of all who have received the decoration.” It received its Congressional charter in 1958 and is the only veterans service organization composed strictly of “combat” veterans. Some 1.8 million individual Purple Hearts have been awarded.

While the Military Order of the Purple Heart membership is exclusive, the order’s mission and extraordinary services extend to all veterans, allowing members to play a unique role in supporting other wounded service members. At 45,000 members, among the smaller veterans service organizations, the MOPH’s influence and work on behalf of all veterans is growing. Likewise, the organization’s outreach to eligible Vietnam War veterans—many of whom may not even be aware of its existence—is growing as well. Perhaps that’s because just as Vietnam veterans now fill many top positions in government and business, today’s top MOPH leaders also served in Vietnam. All of the elected national leaders of the order are Vietnam veterans, as are the top officials of its fundraising arm, the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation.

John “Jack” Leonard, who as MOPH adjutant serves as CEO/COO, entered the Marines in 1963. As a second lieutenant in Vietnam, he was severely wounded near Hill 55 in northern I Corps on August 19, 1969. Leonard retired in 1990 as head of Logistics Plans and Operations at Marine Corps Headquarters.

Frank Van Hoy, MOPH national service director, responsible for staffing and the training of national service officers and support staff in its offices across the country, served in Special Forces on his first tour in Vietnam in 1968. He suffered severe wounds in combat against a large enemy force while at a Special Forces team site. After his recovery in the United States, Van Hoy went to flight school, and during his second combat tour in 1970 he got his second Purple Heart piloting a
UH-1 gunship. “After that,” said Van Hoy, “I stayed the hell away from Vietnam.”

It was during and immediately following World War II that the MOPH saw its largest membership. “We were close to 300,000 members in the late 1940s, early 1950s.” Leonard said. “That coincided with the tremendous growth of other veterans organizations, such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.” After this great growth spurt, the Military Order of the Purple Heart and several other fraternal veterans organizations were chartered by Congress and assumed their mission to serve and advocate for all veterans of all wars.

Like other veterans groups, the MOPH has experienced a natural decline in membership as World War II and Korean War veterans age. According to Leonard, most who join a veterans service organization tend to do so when they reach their mid-40s or -50s. “Another factor,” said Leonard, “is that there are more things to be involved in and people are working longer and retiring later, so they don’t always have the time that the World War II and Korean War veterans had.” Also, the MOPH has none of its own posts or lodges, like the American Legion or the VFW, so there is little presence in communities to help draw in new members.

“We make no bones about being real big,” said Leonard, who joined in 2004. “So there has not been an awful lot of promotion, dedicated membership drives and awareness campaigns until recently.”

Leonard noted that Purple Heart veterans from recent wars and conflicts are joining at an impressive rate. “Currently, we have almost 3,000 new members from the latest wars and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Leonard said. “We also now have 88 female members.” He attributes the aberration of seeing more recent-war members to the organization’s active presence at many Veterans Affairs facilities.

“Of our 77 manned offices, more than 70 of those are within VA facilities,” said Leonard, “and our full-time trained veteran advocates are there to assist veterans of all branches to get their benefits. There is no membership requirement to receive those services, but because of the services we deliver, we believe that is increasing our membership among the youngsters.”

And while the process of becoming a member would appear to be cut and dried, Leonard notes: “We have about a 20-percent failure rate for those who apply. A veteran might claim to have a Purple Heart, but it is not established in acceptable documentation—for instance it’s not on their discharge papers, not on field reports and they can’t produce a general order or field order. We get fairly frequent requests from World War II veterans who claim their records were lost. We are pretty good at unraveling those cases to find who’s eligible and who’s not.”

The MOPH has a range of programs, from scholarships to Americanism to Purple Heart highway designations, but its National Service Program, staffed by 140 specially trained service officers, has the greatest impact across a broad spectrum of veterans. “The folks who man our offices are paid,” Van Hoy stressed, “and trained and accredited by the VA to assist veterans on their claims.” He said the success of the National Service Program is borne out by the fact that in 2012 the order processed some 21,000 VA claims, resulting in $298 million of benefits and compensation awarded to the veterans. Van Hoy added, “If there is merit, we will assist veterans in appealing denied claims through the appeals process. Failing that, a veteran has the option to appeal his case to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Affairs. We are the only veterans service organization that represents veterans to the court without charge.” Under certain circumstances, the MOPH will assist veterans’ dependents as well.

“I put our service up against any other service organization,” said Van Hoy. “I’m not saying they aren’t good, I just know how well trained our people are.”

Beyond the formal service program, as a brotherhood of those wounded in combat, MOPH members offer hope and inspiration to today’s wounded warriors. “We are probably the greatest sounding board for seriously wounded veterans, including those who suffer from amputations, traumatic brain injuries [TBI] and post-traumatic stress [PTS]. We have plenty of members who have suffered and survived these injuries, and through our programs we will reach out to any veteran, member or not, if they are identified as having post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury issues and problems.”

“We preach to our members that if you have a Purple Heart, you probably have PTS,” said Van Hoy. “We know veterans with PTS have a difficult time talking about it with just anyone, but you put them with a veteran, especially one with a Purple Heart, and they will open up easier and quicker. We can make inroads sometimes just by being a buddy and pointing the veteran in the right direction.”

In the MOPH Hospital Visitation Program, members have an immediate impact at a critical time for a wounded warrior. “We can break the ice,” Leonard noted, “and say ‘Hey, you’re talking to another guy who got a Purple Heart.’ We can compare scars and trade stories and get them—and often their spouses—to open up. We emphasize full recovery and drive home the point that there is a life after service. There is nothing more rewarding for one of our members.”

The order also boasts a very active Veterans Affairs Volunteer Program. Last year MOPH members dedicated some 138,000 hours in VA medical facilities and veteran homes, equating to saving the VA about $3 million over the course of the year, or 65 to 70 full-time equivalent VA employees, said Leonard. Through its Student Volunteer Scholarship Program, the organization also recruits and trains young people who then assist veterans when they are in the hospital or at home. It gives about 3,000 awards a year to outstanding ROTC cadets in high school and college as well as scholarships for MOPH members, dependents and survivors.

The Military Order of the Purple Heart has a presence on Capitol Hill and has given input on legislation to correct and upgrade the Department of Defense criteria for the Purple Heart award, specifically related to TBI and PTS.

The organization played a leading role in one of the most significant recent changes related to the Purple Heart award when POWs who died in captivity were made eligible. Leonard said the group remains active with issues related to POW/MIAs and is regularly briefed by JPAC, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, on the latest developments related to the ongoing recovery of remains in Vietnam.

Stressing that it’s never too late for Vietnam veteran Purple Heart recipients to join the MOPH, Leonard urged, “They need to join so their legacy is protected—and they get the added benefit of talking with their bros.”