Prioritizing Purple Heart recipients is the right move for VA

Prioritizing Purple Heart recipients is the right move for VA

According to military folklore, George Washington once said that “the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

Although the accuracy of this quotation has been debated and indeed, the phrase “no matter how justified” seems to be a suspiciously modern one, the sentiment is something that Washington most likely would have agreed with. Particularly in the age of an all-volunteer force, treating veterans with the honor and respect that they have earned is an important aspect of ensuring our national security for both current and future generations.


However, the issue of veterans actually being treated well and appreciated by their nation is one that has plagued the United States since its founding. And unfortunately, over the past decade, many veterans have felt that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the agency created specifically to serve their needs, has been one of the main culprits in treating them poorly.

Between battling a lengthy backlog of disability claims and struggling to maintain adequate access to healthcare appointments, VA has, at times, unintentionally perpetuated the perception that veterans are not treated well nor appreciated by the nation.

Thankfully, despite a myriad of recent criticism over issues such as a lack of focus on suicide prevention and uncertainty surrounding recently rolled out healthcare access standards, VA took a step toward correcting this perception when, earlier this week, Secretary Wilkie announced at a House Appropriations Committee hearing that veterans awarded the Purple Heart medal would receive top priority for disability claims processing.  

Prioritizing veterans who have received combat injuries doesn’t just make sense, but it also embodies Washington’s ideal that we must treat veterans well.  

By way of background, the idea of the Purple Heart medal originated with Washington. In August 1782, he ordered the creation of a “Badge of Military Merit.”  The Badge’s initial design had a purple cloth heart with a silver braided edge. It was only awarded to three Revolutionary War veterans and subsequently, the concept was lost in the shuffle or standing up our new nation.

The concept was revived by the U.S. War Department (the predecessor to the Department of Defense) and championed by General Douglas MacArthur in 1932, in honor of Washington’s 200th birthday and the name was officially changed to the Purple Heart.  During World War II, the criteria for being awarded the medal changed from a general commemoration of bravery to recognition of combat injuries and deaths.

Elevating Purple Heart recipients to VA’s top priority group with regard to benefits determinations is an excellent way to further honor those who have suffered as a result of their service.  Often times, it is the very disability for which the veteran were awarded the Purple Heart that she or he is filing a disability claim for.

Notably, other veterans in this top priority group include Medal of Honor recipients and those with severe service-related disabilities. Although the Medal of Honor is the military’s highest honor, there is nonetheless a warranted level of prestige associated with putting one’s life on the line for their country, particularly when it results in injury or death, a prerequisite for being awarded the Purple Heart medal.

Although some critics have argued that advancing Purple Heart recipients to the front of the line doesn’t solve VA’s problem of having a line in the first place, this critique is ultimately misplaced and most likely has more to do with politics than policy.  

As recently discussed in a New York Times OpEd regarding VA’s community care program, many are quick to criticize decisions made by Trump officials simply because they dislike the President, without proper evaluation of the actual policy decision. This certainly seems to be the case here.

VA’s benefits system is designed to pro-claimant, which includes a statutory duty to assist the veteran in obtaining medical records and, if necessary, scheduling a disability examination.  Although these processes often take longer than many would like, they do, even at their most expeditious, take time to complete. While criticism regarding the length of the line is fully warranted, criticism of the line itself is not.

Given the fact that a line, albeit ideally, a very short one, will always exist at VA, putting Purple Heart recipients at the front of it is the right move. VA’s benefits claims are designed to compensate veterans for disabilities received in the line of service and there are no service-related injuries more deserving of compensation than those received in combat.

Moreover, a service-connected disability is often a veteran’s gateway to VA health care. Given the unique nature of many combat-related injuries, the residuals and side effects of traumatic brain injuries, for example, access to healthcare is even more important for Purple Heart recipients than it is for the average veteran.  

Whether or not Washington actually said that our perception of how veterans are treated will impact future generations’ willingness to serve, the concept behind the quotation is more important than its historical origins.  Prioritizing Purple Heart recipients at VA is but one way our nation can show our appreciation for combat wounded veterans. Secretary Wilkie should be applauded for making this decision.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.