A Bi-Partisan Assault: H.R. 544

Last September saw the introduction of H.R. 6234 by U.S. Representative Paul Cook (R – CA), titled “Private Corrado Piccoli Purple Heart Preservation Act.” It sought to make unlawful the sale of any Purple Heart medal, ribbon, button, or rosette, with penalties to include fines and imprisonment.

A revised version of the bill, H.R. 544 was introduced by Representative Cook on January 13, 2017, intended to amend title 18, United States Code, “to provide for the sale of any Purple Heart awarded to a member of the Armed Forces.”

The bill was referred to House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations on February 8, 2017.

The bill currently has 34 co-sponsors, including two Republicans from Kansas, Lynn Jenkins and Roger Marshall. There are no co-sponsors from Missouri. It is still unclear if or when it will be brought to a vote.

Frontlines

The circle of militaria collectors here in the US is more than a little alarmed. The thing is, the Purple Heart, Navy Cross, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, and a number of combat badges are already “protected.” There are, of course, enhanced penalties for the ultra-rare Congressional Medal of Honor.

At the heart of this is the increasing attention paid to “stolen valor,” which we most often think of as someone putting together a uniform and posing as a veteran, or someone claiming to have been awarded a decoration they did not earn. This is, of course, an issue that should not be taken lightly.

There have been 1.8 million Purple Hearts awarded over the years, plus significant amounts of every one of the other decorations mentioned, including their ribbons, buttoniers, etc.

I can’t begin to estimate the number of Purple Heart medals I’ve evaluated over the last 20 years. Each and every time I handle these items, I think about the service and sacrifice behind these awards – and wonder about the path they have taken to the secondary militaria market, whether by garage sales, tag sales, estate sales, thrift stores, flea market booths, public auction, and militaria shows. I also know the vast majority of those that collect, preserve and trade in militaria think about these things as well.

A Valuable Lesson – Personal Experience

My own family, at some point, sold, gave away or otherwise released my great uncle Wally’s (Pfc Wally Jones, 31st Infantry Regiment “Polar Bears,” Siberia 1918-1919) First World War medals, as well as other related service documents and photos.

While I am not a collector – at least beyond the odd three-dimensional item that helps illustrate my lectures and presentations – I am an appraiser, so part of my job is to track militaria markets. About ten years ago, I found an auction record of Uncle Wally’s items – unfortunately about two months after they were sold. Given the family connection and my intense interest in the Great War, I was immensely disappointed and frustrated I couldn’t bring his things “back home.” But that’s the nature of things.

But I also know his things are being looked after and appreciated by a collector that will someday release them back into the market. I’ll be paying attention.

The vast majority of people that trade in militaria are not unscrupulous, vicious profiteers, money grubbers, deplorable human beings or any other pejorative description that politicians or overly-emotional members of the public assign them. Often they are veterans.

Ultimately they are the people that look after physical representations of a total stranger’s service that, all too often, descendants ceased to appreciate somewhere along the line and simply abandoned. Theft has simply not been that common.

Fallout: Unintended Consequences

“Grouping of uniforms worn by USMC Sgt. Ernie Hartgraves – 1st Battalion, 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division and Japanese souvenirs acquired during the battles for Peleliu and Okinawa. Many of the following items are specifically mentioned in a signed recollection of Hartgrave’s combat experiences…” Sold December 6, 2014.

I wholeheartedly support private efforts to “reunite” named medals of all types, Purple Hearts, Bronze and Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Service Cross, whatever, with families that have had them stolen. I also support it for families that simply ceased to appreciate the medals, badges, uniforms, etc., and allowed them to be dispersed somewhere along the line – but are now ready to resume their stewardship.

It’s important to remember that if the bill becomes law, the only jurisdiction would be the USA.

Of course, the first victims will be, ironically, the living recipients themselves, as this law would deny them the right to do as they wish with their decoration. The liberty their sacrifice was meant to protect will not be extended to the symbol of that sacrifice – as it has been for the previous generations.

It also will likely result in serious collectors of the higher-value name-engraved examples, i.e. those killed in action, to European or Asian auction houses, brokers, dealers, etc. There, the trade in named examples is already solid.

One of the most sacred symbols of our history will simply leave the country, and Purple Heart recipient families, increasingly separated by multiple generations, which suddenly become interested in tracing their relation’s past will have to look far beyond our own borders to find the decoration.

Almost certainly, too, these same international auction houses, brokers, and dealers will exclude sale of the decorations to the US citizens or people with US addresses.

General Colin Powell’s tunic with Purple Heart ribbon, scheduled for auction on April 7, 2017

When thinking about the possibility of medal repatriation and reunion, we’re left to guess what form a special dispensation for purchase might take, but congress loves the chance to bureaucratize the unnecessary. Just as certain too will be those that will profit from guiding families willing to make their way through the bureaucratic maze, purchase the decoration and arrange for its return to the U.S.

There is also the ancillary concern of who is going to look after the medals discarded by disinterested families, banks or courts administering and liquidating the estates of deceased veterans with no heirs, etc.

Add to this the unnamed examples, which even a quick glance through secondary markets will reveal are many, will become a nuisance that may just as easily be remedied by quietly tossing them in the bin with the deceased’s remnant tie tacks, cufflinks, and expired AAA membership cards.

Numerous individual uniforms and estate groupings including the Purple Heart as a medal or ribbon bar that have been preserved by collectors across the secondary market for decades will now have to be stripped of the decoration and/or ribbon bar, leaving the physical representation of the man’s service incomplete and unable to tell its full story.

This, to me, seems the final injustice.

Conclusion: Gathering the Eagles

That said, a collector’s personality is reflected in their collection. Most often, collections of militaria are assembled out of love, curiosity, and a deep desire to connect with and preserve the minutiae of the past.

Criminalizing the people that have looked after someone else’s history, sometimes for decades, while the recipient’s family was off chasing their own dreams is well and truly deplorable.

If collectors or dealers make a few bucks along the way, that’s only fair. These people have, in the truest sense, been the custodians of a sacred aspect of the heritage and history of our country when those that should have been appreciative all along simply couldn’t be bothered.

I hope this misguided overreach quietly disappears.

8 thoughts on “A Bi-Partisan Assault: H.R. 544

  1. One of the fundamental rights for which our veterans have fought is the right to property. America is a capitalist nation. To buy and sell property is an honorable activity. If a veteran or his heirs choose to sell that which is theirs, it is their right to do so. Whatever one may think of this transaction from a moral standpoint, it is the means by which goods pass from the hands of those who value them less to those who value them more. The bill in question refers to medals awarded to members of the armed forces. These medals have also been reproduced for commercial sale. Or even disposed of as surplus by the government itself. Absent the engraved name of the recipient, or accompanying documentation, there is no way to distinguish an awarded medal from a commercial copy or unawarded surplus.

    This issue arose several years ago with the passage of the Stolen Valor Act which criminalized the possession of the Medal of Honor by anyone except the recipient. In an overreaction to a few warped individuals who parlayed fabricated tales of heroism into honors they were not entitled to, such as being named grand marshal of a 4th of July parade, or a certificate from a chamber of commerce, the status of all genuine medals was thrown into doubt. Could the recipient donate the medal to a museum? Or his family? Since the Act covered replicas and facsimiles of the Medal of Honor, there was talk that the once widely distributed copies of the Civil War era medal, sold for years by Dixie Gun Works and other dealers, were now contraband.

    No doubt it was not the intention of the authors of the Stolen Valor Act to prosecute a Civil War buff for displaying a $15 pot metal replica, but when overzealous, self-righteous bureaucrats get power, experience shows it can and will be abused. Better not to take that risk.

    As Mr. Keller points out, uncertainty over the legality of the Purple Heart will result in the deliberate destruction of the medal, or drive the possession and preservation underground or overseas. This is a real dishonor to our veterans and the values they fought for.

    1. I totally agree with Mr. Keller’s point of view.

      As a former collector, I had numerous U.S. medals of all kinds, individually and on clothing, as do literally thousands of others who share the interest in military history and its accoutrements. As if they had nothing more important to do, these busy-body politicians and office-holders are now interfering in matters in which they display a total absence of understanding and real interest, using this issue to gain attention for themselves and their purported “patriotism.” Moreover, they propose a solution to an almost non-existent problem.

      The big question here is why Americans continue to elect these people who, rather than tackling the major concerns of the day, i.e. jobs, the economy, healthcare, education, hunger,immigration, homeland security, waste everyone’s time and energy for no more important purpose than to gain a headline in which their name is mentioned. It’s almost obscene; it most certainly is disgraceful and it clearly demonstrates why so many of those in our legislatures and in Congress are wasting our time and money with matters which are relatively insignificant while they absolutely deliberately neglect to focus on the major issues of the day, the tough ones, that their constituents expect them to address.

  2. Wish I could get this darn thing to post to my Facebook! Giving up after 5 tries! : (

      1. Charles, uniforms do not need to be stripped of the PH ribbons and you have failed to inform your readers that this bill does not make it illegal for any collector or the general public to own a PH. You just can’t put a price tag on the blood of a Hero and sell them. You see, the collector community did this to themselves. My uncle was also a Polar Bear with the 31st in the Philippines at the start of WW2. He survived the 4 month battle until General King surrendered on 9 April 42. He survived the Bataan Death March and a month stay at Camp O’Donnell. He was then transferred to Camp Olivas on a POW work detail and was killed by one of the Camp guards. So here is my question, what makes the blood and death of my uncle worth less money than a Salor’s who was asleep in his bunk on the USS Arizona on 7 Dec 41? You cannot put a price on either man’s death! The majority of the collectors I see griping about this bill make a living off of selling Purple Hearts so most of us who have members of our family who were awarded this Valor for their blood and suffering could care less about those who are trying to lead the effort to stop this bill. Just my 2 cents from someone who is a direct relative!

        1. No one is ‘putting a price on the blood of heroes.’ That emotional myth, along with the myth of a mystical race of people that ‘make a living’ from selling Purple Hearts seem popular with the general public – but are far from reality. In all my years as an appraiser, I’ve never seen a Purple Heart Superstore or known anyone that only collects/sells the Purple Heart.

          Admittedly, in the end you’re very likely to have your way simply because emotional perception, however badly educated on the subject, is defining reality. Symbolism will triumph over substance and politicians will almost certainly score an easy victory solving a problem that doesn’t really exist.

          The fact remains that a Purple Heart will continue to have value outside the US according to each (named) example’s recipient backstory. That’s cold reality.

          And let’s emphasize again that whatever is done here will only apply to Americans. It’s astonishing that few on the ‘pro’ side are not thinking about the fact that there are collectors throughout the world that are going to love the fact that Americans will no longer be allowed to compete for, procure and preserve a sacred piece of their heritage and history.

          It’s frightening to me that anyone who has thought this through can believe limiting the freedom of fellow Americans is the right thing to do.

  3. All my award citations say “the ______ medal is awarded to…” which, as far as I can tell, makes them my property upon receipt. Although I wasn’t awarded a Purple Heart, I view the medals I was awarded as my property with which I may whatever I want. Whether that be give them away—as I often have—throw them over the White House fence in protest of a given war or sell them, once the government has given me what they say I’ve earned, who are they to turn around and tell me what to do with them?

    The whole “stolen valor” thing has been blown way out of proportion. Some guy getting a free meal here or there or living out some delusional fantasy doesn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s all part of a trend of undue hero worship which, quite frankly, has made me more uncomfortable than seeing some poser running around with a medal he hasn’t earned.

    1. When the whole “Stolen Valor” controversy first arose, I was surprised to see that men were risking their reputations for the sake of a free meal or a ride in a parade. The rewards for posing as a hero were trivial and fleeting, compared to being branded as a liar. But, maybe their values are different from mine. Even if they fooled others, for the moment, they had to carry the truth inside themselves.

      I used to work for a major dealer in military artifacts. A co-worker told me the story of a woman who sold her late father’s Medal of Honor to pay for life-saving surgery. Maybe that is a tragedy, but at least she had the resource to sell. Her father’s heroism saved his daughter years later. What father wouldn’t have been happy to have left her that chance?

      It is easier for politicians to make a statement than to achieve something. The Purple Heart Protection Act passed today will be forgotten tomorrow. Until some bureaucrat decides that it’s easier to make a name for himself prosecuting a guy with a closet full of old uniforms than to go after a guy with a closet full of drugs and the gun to defend them.

      Politicians don’t understand collectors, their motivation and how they operate. A guy who collects Air Force uniforms may not have anything to do with glassware, but he will understand the person who does. Same goes for most activities of government. The auto industry is regulated by people who don’t drive. Farmers are regulated by people who think food magically appears in plastic wrappers in the grocery store. Fishermen are regulated by bureaucrats who live thousands of miles away and never baited a hook.

      America functions as well as it does because there are people who know how to keep the lights on, the water flowing, the factories running. Those who can’t do those things are given jobs in Washington to bleed and harass the ones who do.

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