The Purple Heart is a solemn reminder that the men and women of the U.S. armed forces daily continue to put themselves in harm’s way in order to defend the liberties of the American people. Those brave soldiers who receive the Purple Heart are honored by a tradition begun by George Washington on August 7, 1782.

The original Purple Heart, instituted by Washington during the American Revolution, was called the Badge of Military Merit. The American patriots at that time were fighting not only for American independence, but also to protect the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that Americans had proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. The Badge was awarded to honor those who displayed “unusual gallantry” or “extraordinary fidelity and essential service” to this noble cause.

Upon witnessing the uncommon hardships of the American soldiers in 1776, Thomas Paine wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” In the midst of hunger, disease, and death, their acts of “unusual gallantry” inspired reverence and gratitude in all who observed their heroism.

Washington’s Purple Heart recognized their fidelity and was the first American military honor available to the common soldier. On the day it was instituted, Washington wrote in his orderly book: “The road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all.”

The Medal was reinstituted by General Douglas MacArthur in 1932 on the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, and the new design aptly featured Washington’s profile on the medal. Today, the Purple Heart is awarded to those who have been “wounded or killed in any action against an enemy of the United States or as a result of an act of any such enemy or opposing armed forces.”

For the families and loved ones of those who have sacrificed their life or health defending the United States, their losses and suffering undoubtedly continue to try the soul. Yet, with this Purple Heart, the American people acknowledge a debt of gratitude. As Washington noted then, so we continue to recognize today those patriots whose “extraordinary fidelity and essential service” keep America safe and preserve our liberties.