On October 22, 1967, General William C. Westmoreland paid a surprise visit to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital near Long Binh, South Vietnam. He had come to distribute Purple Hearts. To his chagrin, he arrived first at a medical ward where soldiers were convalescing from various tropical diseases and infections. “Medical wards!” the General yelled. “I don’t want to see medical wards. I don’t want to see those fakers.” Westmoreland’s classless quote is recalled by doctors and nurses at the 93rd who were then treating those “fakers” and was recorded for posterity in David Maraniss’s Vietnam epic, They Marched Into Sunlight. The message was simple: When it came to the suffering of US soldiers, bombs and bullets were honorable; mosquitoes and microbes were not.
Now that the Pentagon has ruled explicitly to exclude victims of post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) from eligibility for the Purple Heart medal–unless, of course, they have PTSD in addition to some other bleeding or broken or punctured malady–it seems that General Westmoreland’s callousness, out of touch forty years ago, still pervades the armed forces. Unless you bleed–really bleed–then you’re a “faker.” The “band of brothers” within the armed forces is taking a decidedly unbrotherly view of the debate over the Purple Heart, as comrades in combat have taken to implicitly rating their “brothers'” wounds: if there’s not enough gore involved, then the awarding of the medal becomes the subject of tawdry pettiness.
“Every badge hunter and his brother will have this distinguished award in their sights,” Army Captain Matthew Nichols wrote in a letter to the editor of Stars and Stripes last spring, when the specter of thousands of emotionally wounded teenaged and twentysomething veterans became an issue too pressing to ignore. Joe Palagyi, national adjutant of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, equated psychological trauma to “almost getting wounded.” In other words, if a soldier’s postwar life is emotionally shattered directly because of his service to his or her country, then it’s their own damn unsoldierly fault; any heroism or quick thinking that led to one’s almost–as opposed to actually–getting wounded is not triumphant but rather a gateway to mockery.