BREMERTON, Wash. (NNS) -- America’s oldest military award is distinctive due to its rarity.
Just as the Navy hospital corpsmen who receive it.
And reflect upon it on August 7, designated as Purple Heart Recognition Day.
It was a December 2004 day in Al Fallujah, Iraq, where Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Richard Vaughn was concentrating on gripping an insurgent prisoner and about to become one such recipient of one such rarity.
Assigned to 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine with Kilo Company, 2nd Platoon, 3rd Squadron, Vaughn, then a hospitalman, was involved in Operation Phantom Fury, a two month bloodbath fought in the ravaged cityscape of Fallujah against a determined enemy.
Vaughn and a Marine from his squad were each escorting an insurgent from a dwelling across a courtyard when suddenly their immediate world exploded in a sudden rush of searing shrapnel, concussive noise, and hot air filled with swilling debris.
“The whole place just seemed to blow up. Didn’t know what it was and to this day still don’t know what caused that blast. A hidden projectile? An improvised explosive device? An RPG? All I know is that at that time I had a hold of the insurgent in my right hand and was carrying my medical kit and weapon in my left. We were propelled forward. But I didn’t let go of either the insurgent or my gear,” said Vaughn, currently assigned to Naval Hospital Bremerton Mental Health Department as a Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP) counselor.
Vaughn’s immediate attention centered on his Marine who sustained an injury in his leg from the blast, which tore into the pants and shredded the limb. There was still the responsibility to deliver the insurgents to their designated staging area.
“We got out the courtyard, around the corner, and dropped off the prisoners. I then cleaned up the leg injury of my Marine and got him off to a Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon. We weren’t too far from that unit,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn then finally took a moment to examine himself.
“When the explosion went off, it felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to my left shoulder. There was numbness in my arm. I remember I could feel blood seeping down inside my uniform top. My Marines were on the radio all saying, ‘Doc Vaughn has been hit!’ But after I looked at myself, I thought it really wasn’t that bad. It really could have been a lot worse. To this day I have a hard time telling this, but it really was amazing that it wasn’t. I chalked it up to prayer that there was no gaping wound. Several weeks after I was asked about the injury, and I said it was really nothing,” related Vaughn.
Upon returning to Camp Pendleton from deployment, Vaughn’s chain of command took exception to his own assessment and he was presented with the Purple Heart.
“Everyone was wounded to some degree in Fallujah, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. We lost a lot of Marines and the wounded were too many to count. I don’t think what I did was anything special. Just doing what I had to do,” stated Vaughn.
Part of what Vaughn had to do was experience running firefights lasting three to four hours dealing with insurgents who were operating from rudimentary – but effective – tunnels and underground bunkers.
“We fought those guys. Our Marines were right there in those battles and it was rough. If I focus, I can still remember little details like sounds and smells and sights. When you spend seven months wondering if each new day might be your last, your attention to detail can be amazing,” Vaughn shared, adding that as harrowing as it was, there was a special affinity he felt for those he cared for as their ‘doc.’
The Taft, California native with Fleet Marine Force and Surface Warfare designations did two deployments into Iraq – 2004 and back again in 2006 - as ‘doc’ with his Marines and asserts that although the Purple Heart might be considered a singular distinction amongst most of America’s armed forces, such was not the case for him upon becoming a recipient.
“There were a lot of Purple Hearts where I came from with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine. Being included with them…I am humbled and honored to wear it,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn does get queried at times about his Purple Heart. His response is typically just one word that needs little elaboration.
“I usually just say ‘Fallujah,’ and that seems to be enough,” stated Vaughn.
When the device is formally worn on his uniform, the Purple Heart features a profile of General George Washington, and above the heart appears a shield of the Washington coat of arms between sprays of Green leaves. As distinctive as the front appears, Vaughn notes that the three words on the back concisely describe the award, along with the significance of Purple Heart Recognition Day.
“Those three words signify the true meaning of the Purple Heart. If anyone ever gets confused about what our oldest award stands for, they just need to look on the back and read it for themselves,” suggested Vaughn.
The reverse side has a raised bronze heart with the words “For Military Merit” prominently featured.
It’s that specific meaning that was the driving force behind commemorating August 7 as Purple Heart Day to remember 1782 when General George Washington created the Purple Heart Medal – originally designated as the Badge of Military Merit – as a military decoration that is presented to those wounded or killed while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
For more news from Naval Hospital Bremerton, visit www.navy.mil/local/nhb/.