Veterans Column: Purple Heart Day for a Sacred Military Decoration

Alexander G. Deraney.

By Alexander G. Deraney, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) and GCVF “Mobile Veteran Outreach” Team Member

During this unprecedented time of unrest, defined by a deadly and growing pandemic, powerful and pervasive social unrest, an uncertain economy and sharp political divisions, Americans could be excused for being distracted from the Nation’s observation of Purple Heart Day.

Some might even regard this day with some measure of skepticism and distrust as we see across the country, the debate over what reminders of our history should be regarded as fitting representations of what America is today.

However, we must not be distracted from the Aug. 7 observance of Purple Heart Day and neither should we see this as anything less than the selfless sacrifice that our men and women in uniform made – and continue to make – for our country, its Constitution and the American people.

Simply put, American recipients of the Purple Heart received this sacred award because they were bravely wounded or died in combat while apolitically observing their oath to our Constitution.

Every Aug. 7 the nation acknowledges Purple Heart Day and the 1.8 million Americans who have been wounded or given their lives on the field of battle. This award and its predecessor, the Badge of Military Merit, however, were not originally awarded to the wounded or fallen in combat.

On Washington’s 200th birthday, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then Army chief of staff, reincarnated the Badge of Military Merit as the Purple Heart. The revived medal was designated primarily as a combat decoration, recognizing commendable action to include, but not solely for, those wounded or killed in combat.

In April 1942, the military allowed for the posthumous awarding of the Purple Heart after heavy loss of life at Pearl Harbor, and five months later, the War Department (now Department of Defense) designated the Purple Heart exclusively for wounds or deaths in combat.

It was the events of Dec. 7, 1941, that provided me with the first of many encounters with the heroic recipients of the Purple Heart and the inextinguishable place of honor they occupy within me.

My dad, George Deraney, was a private 1st class in the Army Air Corps. He was playing cards with his buddies in the Hickam Field barracks that lazy Sunday morning, when Japanese fighters and bombers began their attacks.

As a flight navigator, he grabbed his gear, ran to his aircraft and en route, was blown 30 feet in the air. Critically injured, he was hospitalized for over 14 months. The last assignment of his 30-plus year career was to close down Oxnard Air Force Base, paving the path to what would become Camarillo Airport.

He died in 1976 from a massive, inoperable tumor that was the result of shrapnel from the Pearl Harbor attack, an event that resulted in almost 2,000 Purple Heart medals and propelled us into World War II.

After retiring from the Army in 2016, I was interested in exploring, first hand, media reports of military veterans who were homeless. I was skeptical that this occurred with the prevalence it was portrayed.

I believed that certain unscrupulous homeless people were claiming to be veterans in hopes of greater public generosity. To me, it seemed that each service branch discharged its personnel with the pledge that they were a service member for life, and therefore would never be forgotten by the branch of service in which he or she served.

As I began to volunteer locally, I quickly found out that there was indeed a significant homeless veteran population within Ventura County. This year’s point-in-time Homeless Count, a one-day effort in Ventura County alone, identified 94 homeless veterans.

It became clear to me that while exceptional public and private organizations are available for veterans at all levels of our society, there are few organizations that actively seek out veterans who have “dropped off the grid” due to military trauma and social isolation.

One Ventura County organization, the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation, and specifically its Mobile Veterans Outreach program, makes contact with our community’s vulnerable veterans and personally escorts them on the path to shelter, transportation, resumption of critical health care, reinstatement of earned benefits and employment.

The history of Purple Heart recipients is filled with extraordinary acts of courage, gallantry and self sacrifice. It is fitting that the founder of the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation is himself a Purple Heart Recipient.

Ron Greenwood was severely injured after absorbing the force of a hand grenade in the Vietnam Conflict. The foundation he co-created in 2006, remains dedicated to living up to his vision of serving those who served us.

Greenwood retired in 2019 leaving only a single request: “Take care of our veterans, there is so much need, so much suffering among the veteran community…”

Also in 2019, the Mobile Veterans Outreach program was stood up by its current team lead, Rafael Stoneman, who was himself, a homeless veteran who found stability through the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation.

With his fierce commitment to homeless and vulnerable veterans and a skeleton crew, Stoneman stood on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, providing care and housing to more than 34 veterans in Ventura County.

Profoundly, one of Stoneman’s more recent clients is the recipient of a Purple Heart received in Afghanistan. This veteran is taking the first steps on a long path back to wholeness, being closely escorted in a program that lives up to Greenwood’s vision.

On this National observance of the Purple Heart, its important to be reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s words, “A nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.”

While few veterans received the Purple Heart, many will quietly carry the life-long scars received while serving their country, no matter the duration of their time in the military. Those who have served face a unique array of needs that are unmet by our current efforts to end homelessness.

A new approach will require society to accept that homeless veterans face an incredibly diverse array of complex service-related impacts, and we need to be equally adaptable in creating solutions to care for them.

Given the resources and a genuinely concerned and mobilized society, it is my hope that one day, organizations like the Gold Coast Veterans Foundation will allow us to restore the dignity and honor of those who served and remain forgotten.

Source: VC Star article from August 2, 2020