A newly refurbished Purple Heart Memorial was unveiled at Veterans Memorial Park in Lakeland on Saturday, as hundreds gathered to honor any and all wounded or killed while serving their country.

LAKELAND — Underneath a canopy of nearly clear blue skies and Florida sunshine, the newly refurbished Purple Heart Memorial was unveiled Saturday at Veterans Memorial Park. Hundreds gathered to honor any and all wounded or killed while serving their country.

The rededication was spearheaded by the Polk Veterans Council and Harry B. Alexander Memorial Chapter 535 of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, as well as assisted by Home Depot, American Legion Post 3 in Bartow, the City of Lakeland and individual citizen donations.

JROTC cadets by the hundreds were taking selfies with their friends, while their older comrades, seasoned by time at war, sat quietly nearby awaiting the start of the ceremony.

Col. Gary Clark, the USAF (Ret.) chairman of the Polk County Veterans Council, said, “This park is very special to us,” noting it represented years of American history and learning of the country's wars and conflicts and honoring those who sacrificed.

Lakeland City Commissioner Justin Troller was in awe of the monuments in the park.

“The heroes we honor today came from all walks of life. They came from different economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “They came from different religions and professional backgrounds. What they did have in common was courage, selflessness, dedication to duty and integrity — all the qualities needed to serve a cause larger than oneself.

“When their nation needed them, these individuals answered the call, and vowed to fight to protect the country which had given them and us so much. America does not exist without these heroes.”

U.S. Army Master Sgt. (Ret.) John Hillery, vice chair of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 535, introduced the keynote speaker, Col. Larry Redman (Ret.), noting that among all his awards and medals, Redman received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge and the Expert Infantryman Badge.

Hillery said that while most enlisted soldiers would never refer to an officer as a soldier, he was proud to introduce his friend as a “soldier's soldier.”

“He never once asked anyone to perform any duties that he did not do or he could not do himself,” he said.

History of Purple Heart Medal

Redman said that as he reflected about the Purple Heart Medal, he realized there was much history surrounding it that he didn't know.

Noting that the first myth or legend surrounding the medal is that Gen. George Washington established it during the Revolutionary War, Redman told attendees that was “partially true, but not quite accurate.”

In August 1782, he said, the Continental Army was encamped at New Windsor, New York.

“Things were not going well, and morale in the unpaid troops was pretty darn low,” he said.

The troops still faced three major British armies in the field — two to the north and one to the south.

“General Washington needed something to perk up his bedraggled troops, so he published a general order establishing the Badge of Military Merit, in the shape of a heart on purple cloth, or silk, to be worn over the left breast of their jacket,” he said.

The award at the time was only open to enlisted soldiers, he said, who had displayed “unselfish” sacrifice in service and distinction as soldiers.

The first three recipients of the medal were somewhat “shrouded in mystery,” he said.

Three non-commissioned officers — Sgt. Elijah Churchhill, 2nd Continental Dragoons; Sgt. William Brown, 5th Connecticut Continental Line Infantry; and Sgt. Daniel Bissel, 2nd Connecticut Continental Line Infantry — are positively recorded as the first three to receive the award.

“There was supposedly a Book of Merit that was established in which all the recipients' names were to be recorded,” Redman said. “Sadly, that book disappeared, and to this day, we only know of those first three recipients of the Medal of Merit.”

After the defeat of the British and the birth of the nation, the medal and its intent were “all but forgotten,” he said, adding, “merit and distinguished service was not on anybody's priority list.”

Citing historical accounts, Redman said that in the mid-1920s, Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, who commanded the U.S. troops in World War I, suggested a need for an award for merit.

“Now those of us who served can tell you sometimes military progress is not very quick. In this case, the idea to resurrect a Medal of Merit was definitely slow,” Redman said.

“In 1932, it was ordered to be reinstated, designated to be presented for Meritorious Service. It was officially established as the Purple Heart Medal, on Feb. 22, 1932, on Washington's 200th birthday,” he noted. The medal was presented to those wounded or killed as a result of enemy action on or before April 5, 1917.

The new medal was designed by Elizabeth Will, an Army heraldic specialist.

“It was her dedicated and brilliant mind that gave us our current medal, which features a profile of Washington centered in a Purple Heart, with a crest of his family placed at the top of the Heart. On the back, she added the words, For Military Merit,” said Redman.

The medal was made retroactive, and in January 1931, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then serving as the Army Chief of Staff, was the first recipient of the Purple Heart. On May 28, 1932, 137 World War I veterans were awarded their medals at Temple Hill in New Windsor, New York, where the Continental Army had been encamped when Washington first established the Medal of Merit.

The first female to receive the retroactive Purple Heart was an Army nurse, Beatrice Mary MacDonald, wounded in 1917, when the British field hospital where she was assigned was bombed by a German aircraft. She received her award in 1936.

Other notables who received the Purple Heart, Redman said, included Ernest Taylor Pyle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and war correspondent who also wrote “Willie and Joe” cartoons about the war, while reporting on the conflict in Europe. He was killed in action during the Battle of Okinawa on April 18, 1945.

Then there was Lt. Audie Leon Murphy, one of the most decorated soldiers of World War II, who received three Purple Hearts, along with a Medal of Honor, “and too many valor awards to list,” Redman said.

One “surprise” in Purple Heart history includes the story of U.S. Navy Seaman First Class Calvin Graham, who was wounded aboard the USS South Dakota during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The military discovered that Graham forged papers and enlisted at the age of 12 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. A movie was made based on his life, Too Young the Hero, his character played by Rick Schroder.

Redman said there were many famous recipients of the Purple Heart that those in attendance might know, including Charles Bronson, James Arness, James Garner and President John F. Kennedy.

While the award was initially for Army and Air Force solely, on Dec. 3, 1942, by presidential order, the award was extended to all services.

Redman said it's estimated that nearly 2 million Purple Hearts have been awarded, and that 500,000 holders of the medal are still alive.

Close to home

One man wiped tears from his eyes after the ceremony, which included Taps by Mark Huntington, and a Firing Salute by the AMVETS Post 32 Honor Guard.

Ronald Payne, Sr., said his son, 23-year-old U.S. Marine Cpl. Ronald R. Payne Jr., was killed in Afghanistan on May 7, 2004. He and his wife, Aileen, the boy's stepmother, attended the ceremony in remembrance of the young corporal.

He was killed the day before Mother's Day that year, they said.

Many hands were on deck for the Veterans Day ceremony, which featured a lengthy parade afterward. The Presentation of Colors was brought by the Florida Southern College ROTC Color Guard. The National Anthem was sung by Ann Poonkasem, Miss National Patriot Lifetime Queen. Steve Hibman, vice chair of the MOPH 535, led the Pledge of Allegiance. U.S. Navy Chief Warrant Officer (Ret.) Greg Robinson led the invocation, and Lori Abbett, MOPH 535 chaplain, the benediction.

Civil Air Patrol squadrons 274 and 466, as well as the Marvin Shields Seabee Battalion, helped as ushers and ceremony assistants.

Kathy Leigh Berkowitz can be reached at kberkowitz@theledger.com or at 863-802-7558. Follow her on Twitter @kberkowitzthel1.