“I don’t know that Colonel Gallagher really had the thought about how big this could be, but here we are 20 years later and it’s huge,” said retired Colonel Gordon Sumner, junior vice commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 353.
Purple Heart recipients Sumner and Gallagher were members of Chapter 353 when Gallagher came up with the idea to erect a Purple Heart Memorial. On Veterans Day 1998, the memorial was dedicated at George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Gallagher has since passed away, and Sumner and other chapter members reflect on his legacy — and the chapter’s — in forging a new voice for Purple Heart recipients.
The Purple Heart medal is awarded to those wounded or killed in battle. It’s inspired by President George Washington, who was the first to award badges of military merit. Washington’s profile is featured at the center of the award.
“This is the one organization that no veteran wanted to join when they joined the military,” said Sumner. The Order of the Purple Heart’s headquarters is located in Sterling, Virginia, where Chapter 353 meets monthly. The organization has about 46,000 members.
Order members often visit hospitalized Purple Heart recipients to encourage them to join. Chapter 353 member and retired Corporal John Konya was visited in 2005 by two Vietnam veterans. “One of the things they said is, you know, ‘We want to make sure you guys are actually given a good welcome home as opposed to what we got when we came back,'” said Konya.
The Purple Heart Memorial is mile marker zero of Virginia’s Purple Heart Trail, also founded around the same time. More than half of the states in the U.S. have their own trails.
“The fact that all of this is right here and is a direct result of our chapter speaks volumes to the activity of the veterans as a whole in this area,” said retired Sergeant Brandon Hughes, Chapter 353’s commander. He was deployed twice to Afghanistan and awarded his Purple Heart medal two weeks before returning home.
“It actually took me quite some time to open up and I never used to talk about it,” said Hughes, “which was one of my reservations for joining this.” While the Purple Heart Trail sparks conversations among its visitors countrywide, the Order encourages its members to open up, too.
“There’s been a great foundation that’s laid before me and I have huge shoes to fill,” said Hughes. “We’re just trying to leave some kind of legacy and keep passing the buck forward.”