The Pentagon has decided that it will not award the Purple Heart, the
hallowed medal given to those wounded or killed by enemy action, to war veterans
who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because it is not a physical
The decision, made public on Tuesday, for now ends the hope of Iraq and
Afghanistan veterans who have the condition and believed that the Purple Hearts
could honor their sacrifice and help remove some of the stigma associated with
The disorder, which may go unrecognized for months or years, can include
recurring nightmares, uncontrolled rage and, sometimes, severe depression and
suicide. Soldiers grappling with PTSD are often unable to hold down jobs.
In May, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said awarding Purple Hearts to such
service members was “clearly something that needs to be looked at,” after he
toured a mental health center at Fort Bliss, Tex.
But a Pentagon advisory group decided against the award because, it said, the
condition had not been intentionally caused by enemy action, like a bomb or
bullet, and because it remained difficult to diagnose and quantify.
“Historically, the Purple Heart has never been awarded for mental disorders or
psychological conditions resulting from witnessing or experiencing traumatic
combat events,” said Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “Current medical
knowledge and technologies do not establish PTSD as objectively and routinely as
would be required for this award at this time.”
One in five service members, or at least 300,000, suffer from post-traumatic
stress disorder or major depression, according to a Rand Corporation study in
For some soldiers suffering from the disorder, the historical distinction
between blood and no blood in an injury fails to recognize the depths of their
mental scars. A modern war — one fought without safe havens and with the benefit
of improved armor — calls for a new definition of injuries, some veterans say.
Kevin Owsley, 47, who served in the Ohio National Guard in 2004 as a gunner on a
Humvee and who is being treated for PTSD and traumatic brain injury, said he
disagreed with the Pentagon’s ruling.
Unable to hold a job, Mr. Owsley supports his family on disability payments.
This week he told his Veterans Affairs doctor he was fighting back suicidal
impulses, something he has struggled with since his return. “You relive it every
night and every day,” he said. “You dream about it. You can see it, taste it,
see people getting killed constantly over and over.”
“It is a soldier’s injury,” he said, angrily, in a telephone interview on
But many soldiers do not feel that way. In online debates and interviews they
expressed concern that the Purple Heart would be awarded to soldiers who faked
symptoms to avoid combat or receive a higher disability rating from the
Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I’m glad they finally got something right,” said Jeremy Rausch, an Army staff
sergeant who saw some of the Iraq War’s fiercest fighting in Adhamiya in 2006
and 2007. “PTSD can be serious, but there is absolutely no way to prove that
someone truly is suffering from it or faking it.”
The Purple Heart in its modern form was established by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in
1932. Some 1.7 million service members have received the medal, and, as of last
August, 2,743 service members who served in Afghanistan and 33,923 who fought in
Iraq had received the award.
The medal entitles veterans to enhanced benefits, including exemptions from
co-payments for veterans hospital and outpatient care and gives them higher
priority in scheduling appointments.
The Pentagon left open the possibility that it could revisit the issue.
But a Pentagon-supported service group, the Military Order of the Purple Heart,
has strongly opposed expanding the definition to include psychological symptoms,
saying it would “debase” the honor.
“Would you award it to anyone who suffered the effects of chemicals or for other
diseases and illnesses?” John E. Bircher III, director of public relations for
the group, said Wednesday. “How far do you want to take it?”
Post-traumatic stress disorder was first identified during the Vietnam War and
has gradually been accepted as a serious psychological problem for some who
experience violence and fear.
Dr. Barbara V. Romberg, a psychologist in Bethesda, Md., and founder of Give an
Hour, which offers mental health services to troops and their families, said
that she and many other psychologists believed the discussion of Purple Hearts
had brought more attention to post-traumatic stress disorder and the seriousness
of psychological wounds suffered on the battlefield.
“We’re working to normalize post-traumatic stress as an understandable human
consequence of war that can result in very serious damage to some people’s
lives, and they deserve honoring for that,” she said.
“But I don’t want to be so quick to condemn the decision,” she added.
Many have post-traumatic stress, but only some develop a serious lasting
disorder; in both cases, she said, “people deserve to be honored in some way for
the injury they received in combat.”
After years of criticism for ignoring the problem, the Defense Department and
the Veterans Administration have bolstered their capacity to diagnose and treat
PTSD, and those with serious cases may receive substantial disability benefits.
Some of those suffering from severe traumatic brain injuries qualify for a
Purple Heart because they required medical treatment.
But in its decision not to extend Purple Hearts to PTSD sufferers, first
reported Tuesday by Stars and Stripes, the Pentagon said part of the problem
stemmed from the difficulty in objectively diagnosing the disorder.
That decision was made in November. It was not clear why the Pentagon did not
announce the decision then.
There have been recent changes in awarding Purple Hearts. The criteria was
expanded in 2008 to include all prisoners of war who died in captivity,
including those who were tortured. “There were wounds there,” Mr. Bircher said.
“You have to had shed blood by an instrument of war at the hands of the enemy of
the United States,” he said. “Shedding blood is the objective.”
CHÂTEL-CHÉHÉRY, France — On Oct. 8, 1918, Cpl.
Alvin Cullum York and 16 other American doughboys stumbled upon more than a
dozen German soldiers having breakfast in a boggy hollow here.
The ensuing firefight ended with the surrender of 132 Germans and won Corporal
York a promotion to sergeant, the Congressional Medal of Honor and a place in
America's pantheon of war heroes.
Now another battle is unfolding as rival researchers use global positioning
systems and computer programs, old maps and military reports to try to establish
the exact site of the fighting on that day 88 years ago. Their heated
examinations do not challenge the essential heroism of Sergeant York, yet such
scrutiny helps explain why it is hard to be a hero these days.
There are other reasons, too, of course. Wars are often unpopular clashes
fraught with moral ambiguity, and while the news media are often attracted to
heroism, they also like to challenge myth building.
The military's attempt to turn Pfc. Jessica Lynch into a hero after the invasion
of Iraq unraveled when it emerged that she had not emptied her rifle at
advancing Iraqi soldiers, as first reported. The initial accounts of Cpl. Pat
Tillman's death in Afghanistan in April 2004 came undone when it was disclosed
that the corporal, a former N.F.L. star, had been killed by members of his own
Military abuses now have a longer shelf life than acts of derring-do.
It was easier to create heroic stories in 1918 when the press was more pliable
and the public more gullible, and the popular media had a fondness for uplifting
tales of uncomplicated bravery. Though newspaper articles at the time refer to
members of Sergeant York's platoon who challenged the accounts of that day, the
doubters were given only enough attention to dismiss them.
His exploits grew until he had single-handedly silenced 35 German machine gun
nests and killed 25 enemy soldiers.
The latter-day search for the site of his heroic stand raises questions about
the long-accepted story. In particular, evidence of the sprawl of German
military positions that day does not mesh easily with the geographic
concentration described in Sergeant York's published diary.
According to his account, he was in a group of 17 men who sneaked behind enemy
lines to attack German machine gunners who were holding up a larger American
advance. They surprised a group of soldiers, who surrendered, but almost
immediately came under fire from machine gunners on a ridge 30 yards away.
Six of the Americans were killed and three others were wounded, leaving then
Corporal York the officer in charge. He is credited with overcoming the superior
force by using his sharpshooting skills, honed during turkey shoots and squirrel
hunts in the Tennessee woods.
"Every time I seed a German I jes teched him off," his published diary reads.
This version holds that the senior German officer in charge eventually offered
to order his men to surrender if Corporal York would stop shooting. Within weeks
the young Tennessean was being feted as a war hero, and by the time he returned
to a New York City ticker-tape parade the next May, he had been anointed the
Great War's bravest patriot.
But even he seemed bemused by the mythmaking that surrounded him, and he shunned
the lucrative limelight after the war for the obscurity of his old Tennessee
His heroism might have been forgotten outside the state had Hollywood not
revived the story in the 1941 film "Sergeant York." Gary Cooper won an Oscar for
his portrayal of the hero, and the film became the highest-grossing movie of the
year as another European war was under way.
But underlying the well-shaped tale is a murkier, more complex narrative.
Sergeant York's published diary is actually a heavily embellished account
written for magazine serialization in the 1920's with help from a flamboyant
Australian soldier-poet named Tom Skeyhill, who was blinded earlier in the war.
That diary contradicts itself on several points, and the homey, mountain
vernacular in which it is written is almost certainly an invention of Mr.
Skeyhill, who often wrote in colorful dialects. Michael Birdwell, a historian
and the curator of Sergenat York's papers at the Alvin C. York Historic Site,
says the sergeant's family has never made the real diary available to
historians, so it is not clear what it contains.
"The question is, what is really York and what is after-the-fact addition and
what is plain fabrication?" said Mr. Birdwell, who is part of a team searching
for the exact location of the battle. "I personally dismiss much of the
Nor did Sergeant York's tale go unchallenged. Although the Army took affidavits
from the surviving platoon members corroborating his account, at least one of
the men later asserted that he, too, had fired his weapon during the battle and
that it was impossible to tell who was responsible for killing the most Germans
or how many of them had died.
Two corporals, William Cutting and Bernard Early, who were both wounded, said
the Sergeant York legend had started with a reporter for The Saturday Evening
Post, George Patullo. They met him at a first aid station after the incident,
they said, and told him about the day's events.
Mr. Patullo chose to focus on Sergeant York, presumably because of the tighter,
richer narrative his story allowed. The article, titled "The Second Elder Gives
Battle" in a reference to his position in his Tennessee church, tells the story
of an uneducated backwoods Christian who reluctantly goes to war and reconciles
his religious beliefs with his sense of duty to his country.
The article made him an instant celebrity. But Corporal Cutting insisted long
after the war that the senior German officer had surrendered to him that day,
not to Sergeant York. He even threatened Warner Brothers with legal action if it
did not acknowledge his claims in the film.
At the release of the film, The Boston Globe ran an advertisement in the name of
the seven men saying that they did not recall signing the affidavits
corroborating Sergeant York's account and that none of them were "in agreement
with Warner Bros.' or Sergeant York's version of what really happened 'over
The Germans, too, investigated the incident and found that Sergeant York could
not possibly have carried out the feat alone. They suggested that the story was
a compilation of several events that day. Almost all of those who have wrestled
with the tale, like Mr. Birdwell, agree that the claim that he silenced 35
machine guns is pure fiction.
Still, the many inconsistencies do not detract from the fact that he and his
comrades exhibited extraordinary courage that day.
Now competing groups obsessed with pinning down the truth — to the amusement of
the local French — are using modern forensics to find the spot where Sergeant
A group of Tennessee college professors announced in March that they were "80
percent" certain that they had located the spot using metal detectors, hand-held
global positioning devices and a sophisticated computer program that overlays
historic and modern maps. But an American military intelligence officer working
for NATO insists that the professors' location is wrong and that he is close to
finding the correct spot.
"They're not even in the right valley," said the officer, Lt. Col. Douglas
Mastriano, standing in a poplar grove with a metal detector that beeps and
buzzes at buried shrapnel and cartridge casings.
Each side says its theories about where Sergeant York stood will be proved
correct if it finds spent cartridges from a Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol that
he and several witnesses said he fired at seven German soldiers who charged him
with fixed bayonets.
But each .45 cartridge casing is less than an inch long, and the pan of a metal
detector is only about a foot wide. The wooded area in which he could have been
standing covers more than a square mile and is peppered with bits of exploded
artillery and bullets, as well as spent rifle and machine gun cartridges.
In the end, it does not really matter who is right. The wooded valley where the
fighting took place, its silence broken only by intermittent birdsong, still
carries geography's sometimes powerful spell. Standing there, one can imagine
the murmur of voices, followed by shouts, the sickening rattle of machine gun
fire and, finally, the cries of falling men.
Mr. Birdwell and Colonel Mastriano have found American ammunition that may have
come from York's bolt-action Lee-Enfield Model 17 rifle. Colonel Mastriano also
found an American bullet buried in the dirt on the crest of the ridge that he
says Sergeant York was firing at.
But his rifle has disappeared, and so there is no way of verifying whether he
fired any of the rounds found. The proof, both sides say, will be finding
cartridge casings from a Colt .45 semiautomatic like the one that Sergeant York
fired — if they are to be found at all.