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In 1782, barely six years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, General George Washington gave three members of his fighting troops a special “Badge of Military Merit,” a purple-colored heart-shaped award. Two hundred years later, the medal was resurrected in 1932 by Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur and today it remains a prestigious honor awarded to the brave soldiers and sailors, airmen and corpsmen wounded or killed in the protection and service of our country.
The Purple Heart Hall of Honor, a museum located 10 miles north of West Point in New Windsor, N.Y., is devoted to keeping the stories of U.S. military veterans alive. Built in 2006 on the historical Revolutionary War site where General Washington kept 7,000 troops at the ready in case Great Britain wanted to attack the young nation, the Hall of Honor contains an extensive collection of military weapons, displays and interactive exhibits.
But it’s more than just a museum. Thanks to Thomas Lange, the Hall’s Coordinator of Digital History, the Purple Heart Hall of Honor is also a repository for veterans to tell their stories, to recall their experiences during their time in combat and their lives upon returning home.
“We’re interested in stories,” says Lange. “Early on, one of the best ways we found to collect stories was through video interviews. This building itself opened in November 2006, and we did the first interview the next day. That interviewee, Joseph O’Neill, was a Vietnam veteran.”
In front of a video camera, veterans talk about the combat injury that earned the award, and they also reminisce about the triumphs achieved and struggles endured after their military service concluded.
Today, a Vietnam veteran from Brooklyn named Roberto Delgado sits in front of a video camera and tells Lange about life on the battlefront. “Initially I found it a bit draining,” says Delgado, “but I just really try to focus on the therapeutic value of the interview itself. It’s helped me, and I believe these interviews have helped a lot of other veterans as well.”
“We get a lot of World War II veterans,” says Lange. “We do get Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but at the moment the majority of interviewees are Vietnam veterans.” Transcripts and audio files of some of the interviews are available to the public on the museum’s website, www.thepurpleheart.com.
It is estimated that more than 1.7 million Purple Hearts have been bestowed to America’s fighting forces, including medals retroactively awarded for conflicts prior to 1932. But that’s just a guess, as past records of Purple Heart recipients were lost in a 1973 fire at the National Archives. The Hall of Honor is attempting to recompile the list, by asking those who visit the website to add any biographical information regarding their service. The museum can also help replace lost or damaged medals if the recipient has the necessary documentation.
To be part of the ongoing oral history project, call the museum directly or visit the website for email contact information. Says Lange, “Just call up and say you’re interested in telling your story.”
If You Go
The National Purple Heart Hall of Honor
374 Temple Hill Rd.
New Windsor, N.Y. 12553
Phone: (877) 28HONOR (284-6667)