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Q: During World War II, many U.S. ships were sunk due to enemy action. If a sailor had entered the water with no wounds and a shark bit him before rescue came, would he be awarded a Purple Heart? Likewise, were any soldiers fighting in the jungle awarded the Purple Heart if they were attacked by an animal or bitten by a poisonous viper while on patrol or in a foxhole? 

–Major James A. Goodwin II, U.S. Army Reserve (Ret.), Huntsville, Ala.

A: The issue of who is—or isn’t—eligible to receive the Purple Heart is an interesting and occasionally contentious one. The basic tenet, as cited by Executive Order 11016, is that to be eligible a serviceman must have been killed or wounded “in action against an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which U.S. Armed Forces are or have been engaged.”  

The bottom line is that, although an argument can be made that servicemen attacked by animals while in combat situations are “in action,” they are not eligible for the Purple Heart unless they are injured or killed from direct enemy engagement. Servicemen on a torpedoed ship would indeed be eligible for a Purple Heart if they had been injured directly by the explosion—but not if, as in the scenario described by reader Goodwin, they weren’t hurt until they were already in the water.   

The criteria have evolved since the award was created in its current form by Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur in 1932 (who revived the older and long-disused Badge of Military Merit created by George Washington in 1782). Originally, only members of the army were eligible; President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the award to include members of all military branches in 1942. Twenty years later, President John F. Kennedy further extended eligibility so that civilians fighting under a sovereign foreign government could also be honored for their sacrifice, though in 1998 that rule was reversed. Eligibility criteria have since expanded again to include those killed or injured from international terrorist acts either abroad or on American soil. 

Determining eligibility for the Purple Heart continues to be controversial. In January 2009, after numerous military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, there were some who wanted to include PTSD for Purple Heart eligibility, but the Department of Defense concluded that PTSD did not qualify. According to a statement provided by a DOD spokesperson, “PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event.” It is not a “wound intentionally caused by the enemy from an outside force or agent.” Since then, Congress has been reluctant to revisit this topic.  Barbara Salazar Torreon, Information Research Specialist, Congressional Research Service

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This article was published in the December 2019 issue of World War II.