A Matter of the Heart

Three captured Americans returned from Kosovo with Purple Hearts, the military's way of recognizing soldiers wounded in combat. But did they deserve them? Some say no.

May 26, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The medal -- "a rich purple heart bordered in gold with a bust of Washington in the center and the Washington coat-of-arms at the top" -- is the oldest military decoration in the world and the first awarded the common soldier. George Washington created the Purple Heart during the Revolutionary War. Basically, any member of the U.S. armed forces wounded in combat is entitled to it. And entitled is perhaps the key word.

John Kirby earned two Purple Hearts: one for a wound from "a little piece of a shrapnel" during a mortar attack in Vietnam ("The Viet Cong were excellent mortarmen," he says) and another for a more serious bullet wound.

"I wouldn't trade my shrapnel wound for a rifle butt in the face," says Kirby, adjutant general of the Virginia-based Military Order of the Purple Heart.

Kirby's talking about the flap over the Purple Hearts given three U.S. soldiers after their release from capture in the former Yugoslavia. Some members of his organization have voiced concern about the suitability of granting the medal to these men, who were captured without resistance along the Macedonia-Kosovo border in March.

The three men -- Staff Sgts. Christopher J. Stone and Andrew A. Ramirez and Spc. Steven M. Gonzales -- apparently were surrounded by Serbian troops and taking fire when they were captured. They were "punched, hit with rifle butts and treated extremely roughly," according to a Pentagon spokesmen.

Kirby, a Marine veteran, says there is little doubt the POWs are eligible for the medal. The Purple Heart can be awarded for wounds inflicted while a soldier is being captured or for disabilities incurred while they are incarcerated.

But the Defense Department has received complaints. Veterans have debated the award on call-in talk shows, and several editorialists have blamed the "Clintonized, feminized army" for granting the medal to soldiers "surrendering without a fight." Some question whether the captives of the Serbians were in combat at all, dismissing them as "peacekeepers." Yet peacekeepers who are wounded are specifically named in the criteria for the medal -- and so are POWs.

Men and women who wear the Purple Heart fiercely defend the medal. They are proud. They don't want it compromised or devalued. Most paid for it with blood and flesh, and some say you shouldn't get the Purple Heart for "getting slapped in the face."

Poll results reported Monday in the Marine Times, a private, unofficial newspaper, showed that 41 percent of 2,840 people who responded thought the men should have been awarded the Purple Heart. But 59 percent voted "No."

"Our members try to protect the integrity of the medal," says Kirby, the Military Order adjutant. If enough letters of complaint are received, he says, the issue would be put before the order's national committee, which would then decide what action to take, if any.

The Military Order, a service organization for Purple Heart veterans, has about 32,000 members, including at least 11 women, mostly nurses. Kirby estimates that there are at least 600,000 living Purple Heart holders.

Wounded under fire

Lloyd Cavey, 77, a World War II Marine, also has two Purple Hearts. A retired electrician, he lives on Willow Avenue, off North Point Road in Baltimore County. He was wounded on Saipan and Iwo Jima in 1944 during the bloody island-hopping campaigns against the Japanese.

"I was leading a machine-gun section on Saipan," he says, in the laconic style of the WWII vet. "About the 21st day we went onto Hill 272, Fourth of July Hill. The squad leader got hit between the eyes. I got shot in the right arm."

He went back to an aid station where the medic said: "Don't worry about it. It went straight through."

Cavey returned to his outfit in time for the landings at Iwo Jima in February 1945. He was riding on the bank of a tank that got hit. The concussion knocked him off, filled his legs with shrapnel and his eyes with dirt and debris.

"They picked stuff out of my eyes for three days," he says. "I still got a piece of shrapnel working its way out."

He says he doesn't want to take anything away from the young men in Macedonia, but he thought the Purple Heart should be reserved for combat veterans wounded under fire.

Getting beat up? "That don't count," he says.

Paul Keener of Maugansville, in Washington County, got his two Purple Heart wounds in Vietnam at a place aptly named "Widow's Village" near the big U.S. base at Long Binh, maybe 15 miles north of Saigon. He was hit the first time on Jan. 31, 1968, the first day of the Tet offensive that changed the course of the war.

"I got shot in the head," he says. "Not bad. The bullet went through my helmet, creased the top of my head and went out the other side."

He was a medic with a reconnaissance platoon of 9th Division armored personnel carriers, much like the men in Macedonia in their Humvees. His outfit was pinned down overnight. He slapped a bandage on his head wound and went to an aid station the next morning. Thirteen stitches closed the wound.

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