Originally Published: August 7, 2003 6:10 p.m.
The Purple Heart, probably this country's most recognizable military decoration, is 221 years old today.
Gen. George Washington established the decoration for meritorious action on Aug. 7, 1782, during the Revolutionary War to reward soldiers for bravery. The original decoration, called the Badge for Military Merit, was a Purple Heart of silk, bound with braid with the word "merit" stitched across the face in silver.
It was intended for both enlisted men and officers. Washington specified that the decoration be awarded "not only for instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service." Only three Revolutionary War soldiers earned the citation – Sergeants Elijah Churchill, William Brown and Daniel Bissell Jr.
After the Revolutionary War, no more American soldiers received the Badge of Military Merit. But in 1931 Gen. Douglas MacArthur proposed a new medal for issue on the bicentennial of George Washington's birth.
The new award was announced in 1932 and the government told World War I American soldiers they could exchange their Meritorious Service Citation Certificates for the Purple Heart.
Presidents have made changes through the years. In 1962 John F. Kennedy extended eligibility "to any civilian national of the United States" wounded "while serving under competent authority in any capacity with an armed force."
In 1984 Ronald Reagan amended that order to include those wounded or killed as a result of "an international terrorist attack." The government awarded Purple Heart Medals to military members or next of kin who were wounded or killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
World War II veteran Frank Carpenito, a Chino Valley resident since 1984, was wounded on April 12, 1945, on Okinawa. He remembers the date because it was the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt died.
"I was blown up by a bomb that landed in my bunker," he says candidly. A Japanese aircraft dropped a 500-pound bomb "that threw me up in the air about 25 feet and I came down on my back."
"The blast just tore everything apart," he said. "I should have been killed. But the man upstairs said I wasn't ready yet."
Carpenito said he still has shrapnel in his body and his back still causes him problems.
"But they don't have X-ray machines in combat hospitals; they just try to keep you alive," the Navy veteran said.
Prescott resident Dr. John Tapia earned three Purple Heart decorations for service during World War II and four additional Purple Heart citations for service in Korea.
But he didn't want to talk about how he earned his seven Purple Hearts during his 20 years of Army service.
"When you get one, you get them all," he said.
Instead, he wanted to talk about a Catholic priest who died in a prison camp during the Korean War. Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas native who left his parish in 1944 to join the Army, was 35 when he died of pneumonia in a Korean prison camp run by the Chinese. The Army had ordered him to try to escape through the surrounding enemy after the 8th Cavalry was overwhelmed on Nov. 2, 1950, but he refused to leave wounded and dying soldiers. The Chinese captured him as he administered the last rites.
Tapia is part of a group, Catholic War Veterans of the United States of America, that is working to attain Sainthood for the Army chaplain.
Father Kapaun administered the last rites to Tapia on Sept. 5, 1950, on one of the occasions he was wounded in Korea.
"If he is declared a saint by the pope," Tapia said, "can you imagine the beauty of being given the last rites by a saint?"
Alfonso Santillan, a Vietnam veteran who earned two Purple Hearts during two 13-month tours in 1966 and 1968, celebrated his 18th birthday in 1965 on a troop ship on his way to Vietnam.
In 1966 his eardrums were perforated and he received shell fragments to the head when Vietnamese "suicide soldiers" threw a "satchel" charge at him near Hue Phu about 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone.
But that injury was minor compared to the wounds he received during the Tet Offensive in July 1968.
The Dewey resident was leading his squad on patrol when the radioman walking in front of him tripped a booby trap that triggered a 60-mm mortar round.
The blast threw the 125-pound Santillan "up in the air, twisted me and threw me down. I was bleeding like a stuffed pig and had holes in me from my ankles to my eardrums."
A medic ripped his clothes off, he said, and started putting bandages on his legs, abdomen and chest. Soon the medic realized they needed a medical helicopter and Santillan was evacuated to a MASH unit near Da Nang.
Waiting on a litter outside the crowded MASH unit, he told a doctor he was having trouble breathing. The doctor told Santillan he had a collapsed lung and asked him to move to his side. Without anesthesia, he "crammed a hard plastic tube into my collapsed lung" that helped drain the blood until doctors could treat him. The 20-year-old Marine didn't feel a thing and breathed easier as he waited his turn behind more severely injured soldiers and Marines.
Two days later he regained consciousness and dictated a note to his parents through a Red Cross worker: "As you probably know by now, here I am stuck in the hospital again. It isn't as bad as it was last time. From what I understand I'll be going home pretty soon. The only reason I'm not writing this letter myself is because I feel sort of weak and they gave me a local anesthe-tic."
He was downplaying his injuries for his parents' benefit. After spending 14 months in a Long Beach Navy hospital, the Marines "put me on the permanently disabled list and retired me in October 1969."
Today, Santillan displays his Purple Hearts proudly. And he smiles when he remembers that "it was one of our rounds" that disabled him.
"We're the only ones who made 60-mm rounds. The Vietnamese had 62-mm. They captured one of ours and used it against us."