IN CHANGING TIMES, IT’S NOT ALWAYS CLEAR
Douglas MacArthur wrote of the Purple Heart: “… it is the only decoration which is completely intrinsic in that it does not depend upon approval or favor by anyone. It goes only to those who are wounded in battle, and enemy action alone determines its award.” But while the criteria for earning the decoration are apparently simple and straightforward, the ambiguities of modern war have clouded perceptions of what actually constitutes a “wound.”
On October 24,1998, Chief Warrant Officer Steven McCoy was piloting his UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter during peacekeeping operations in Bosnia when a powerful laser was directed at his ship for four or five seconds. Both McCoy and his crew chief, Sgt. Juan Villareal, were temporarily blinded. The Wall Street Journal reported that an Army eye specialist had concluded that they had suffered “mild to moderate” burns.
Neither soldier received a Purple Heart, and when queried on the matter, the commander of the U.S. forces in Bosnia questioned their eligibility because it was unclear whether the laser was used with hostile intent. It is not likely, however, that the question of “hostile intent” would have even come into play if the soldiers had been wounded by bullets or a rocketpropelled grenade. Specialist Martin J. Begosh of the 709th Military Police Battalion received his decoration within hours of being badly injured when his reconnaissance vehicle struck a land mine on a contested road in Bosnia. There was also no ambiguity in the case of Navy Lt. Michael W. Watkins, who was struck by ground fire when traveling in a Spanish transport aircraft flying out of Zagreb, Croatia.
But while no one in McCoy and Villareal’s chain of command thought to award Purple Hearts for their injuries, commanders in the twenty-first century may increasingly find their troops being attacked by unconventional weapons: blinding lasers, devices that induce severe acoustic trauma, weapons that create extreme overpressure to crush internal organs, and even psychotropic weapons that attack mental processes or kill by shutting down bodily functions.
Even when the injuries are clearly inflicted by an enemy, old perceptions die hard. Throughout World War I and for some time thereafter, unit rosters would list all soldiers who received combat injuries as “wounded in action” no matter whether those wounds came from shrapnel, flame, bullets, or barbed wire. Poison gas was another matter. It killed or incapacitated just as surely as a machine gun, but it was, well, new and did not produce the traditional wounds. Soldiers who fell prey to German (or their own) gas clouds would invariably be listed in the rosters as “gassed” or “gassed, died in hospital.” Soldiers’ and the public’s view of gas remained murky long after the war and was so uncertain that when the Army reinstituted the Purple Heart in 1932, it had to state specifically that “disablement by gas, or gas poisoning,” should be considered a wound.