CAMP BLUE DIAMOND, Iraq -- Pfc. Quintin D. Graves thought the Purple Heart was some sort of mysterious and antiquated medal when he joined the Marine Corps in July 2003.
Less than a year later, he's wearing two of them.
"I thought it was for people from World War II or Vietnam," said the 19-year-old from Salt Lake City. "I didn't think this many people would be injured in Iraq."
Commanders knew different. Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, warned Marines in his letter to all hands before deploying to Iraq that the road to victory would be paid for in blood.
"This is our test - our Guadalcanal, our Chosin Reservoir, our Hue City," Mattis wrote. "We must be under no illusions about the nature of the enemy and the dangers that lie ahead."
For that reason, the Purple Heart, rarely seen on a Marine's uniform for years, is destined to become more common. In all, 608 Marines, sailors and soldiers assigned to the 1st Marine Division have earned the right to wear the Purple Heart as of May 9th, with 370 already awarded. Second Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment has the dubious distinction of authorizing the most for a battalion at 143.
The ranks run from private first class through lieutenant colonel. Still, the numbers continue to climb.
Six Marines, including Graves, received the medal twice.
Other two-time recipients include Pfc. Michael J. Jones from Battery L, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, awarded for wounds received on April 11th and 26th. Gunnery Sgt. Wallace M. Mains from Company A, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment earned his Purple Hearts on April 6th and again ten days later. Lance Cpl. Lucas P. Seielstad, from Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was awarded the medal on April 22nd and 26th. Lance Cpl. Gary Vanleuven, from Company L, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment earned the right to the Purple Heart March 30th and again posthumously April 17, when he was killed in action.
Purple Heart history
The Purple Heart is oldest military decoration for the U.S. military, according to the Military Order of the Purple Heart, a fraternal organization for those who wear the decoration. It was originally authorized by Gen. George Washington Aug. 7, 1782 in Newburgh, N.Y., at his headquarters. It was created as the Badge of Military Merit, but fell out of use after the Revolutionary War.
The U.S. War Department revived the award on Feb. 22, 1932, to be awarded to members of the military wounded by an instrument of war by the enemy. It was also presented to the next of kin for those killed in action or those who died as a result of their wounds. The medal, in its reintroduction, was specifically designated as a combat decoration, retaining the words "For Military Merit" on the reverse side.
Still, the Marines and sailors weren't authorized to wear the medal until President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order Dec. 3, 1942. President Ronald Reagan amended the order Feb. 23, 1984 to include those who were wounded or killed as the result of international terrorists.
One medal not wanted
Graves had the distinction of being the first Marine in the division to be awarded the Purple Heart twice during this deployment. But Graves never thought he'd be among those who wear the Purple Heart. Even after two weeks in Iraq and hearing the stories from the soldiers, he thought it couldn't be as bad as they made it out.
He described the day he was first wounded, March 13.
"Everybody was sitting straight up in the humvee," Graves explained. "We weren't getting down behind the blast doors. We didn't think it could be that bad."
Graves thought his corporal was being overly cautious when he told him to crouch down in the vehicle. Five minutes later, he said, the world seemed to erupt around him.
Graves' humvee was blasted by an improvised explosive device. He figured he must have blacked out. When he realized what was going on, the humvee was sitting still. No one was moving. He reached back for his corporal, only to see he was severely wounded. One Marine lost an eye. Another's jaw was torn apart.
He said he remembered pulling a patch of gauze from his pocket and wondering how he was going to patch the wounds of his fellow Marines.
"I didn't even know I was injured until everyone was medevaced and I was checked out," Graves said. "They said I was hit."
"I took shrapnel to my left arm," he added. "I made it out easy. I didn't want the Purple Heart for that, but there's nothing you can do. I guess it's not up to me."
Graves' second award came April 7, during the fighting in Ar Ramadi. His platoon was sent out to reinforce another unit pinned down. They came upon a dead terrorist who was shot while trying to emplace an IED - a trigger for an ambush - when someone tossed a grenade over a wall.
"I looked back and it happened to be luck," he explained. "I saw it land. It was one of those pineapple-looking grenades. We just started running and I kept thinking 'It should have blown by now.'"
When it did, Graves was all too aware. Shrapnel peppered his left calf, left thigh, buttocks, his back and left shoulder.
"I knew I was it," he said. "It was like someone punched me. After it blew I was still running so I figured it couldn't be that bad. A hail of gunfire followed and I kicked in a gate to a house and took cover.
"I felt blood coming down my butt," he added. "It burned so bad."
Another Marine patched Graves' wounds and he finished out the mission. For the second time in less than a month, he called home to his mother.
"I tried to explain it wasn't that bad," Graves said. "I couldn't lie and say I'm not around the fighting. That lie doesn't work anymore."
Kuster's still standing
Cpl. Thomas W. Kuster figured there was no way he'd be hit in Iraq this year. After all, he was wounded last year in Baghdad. The odds seemed to be in his favor.
"They got me once," said the 28-year-old from Citrus Heights, Calif. "I figured they weren't getting me again."
Kuster was in a machine gun squad in Baghdad April 10, 2003 when he took cover between two cars during street fighting.
"It didn't cover me from the guy on the roof," he said. "I got a lot of 'frag' in the hand and the arm."
Kuster said he felt more pressure than pain when he was hit last year.
"My initial reaction was I was pissed," he said. "My Marines took him out."
But luck wasn't on his side. On April 12, almost a year to the day of his first wounds, Kuster's squad moved from a checkpoint outside of Fallujah to check out some dead space from where they received fire. They couldn't find any sign and turned to move back to their original position.
"As soon as the vehicle turned, they fired," Kuster said.
One round hit Kuster on the side of his left kneecap as he stood behind his MK-19 automatic grenade launcher.
"It was excruciating pain," Kuster said. "I pulled myself back up and they started shooting again. I got off a couple bursts. I could see a bullet hole in my cammies and thought, "Oh shit.' It pissed me off more than anything."
Kuster fought to keep his gun in action. He battled the pain to stand behind his gun when it jammed. He couldn't stand any longer. By then, the humvee he was in had broken contact.
"I was laughing and joking about it," Kuster said. "I told everyone I was going to be back out soon. I wasn't going home."
Doctors removed the bullet from the back of Kuster's knee. He had a fractured tibia, but otherwise, was ready to return to his Marines.
"I've got a pretty good-sized hole in my knee that's taking it's own sweet time to heal," he said.
April 16, he made the phone call home to his girlfriend to tell her he was fine. He reassured his parents that he was back inside the base and there were never attacks there. But he spoke too soon.
Third time's a charm
Kuster laid down in his tent after he was done with his phone calls. That's when he heard rockets scream into the base. Shrapnel tore through the tent, hitting him dead center in his back.
"It wasn't bad," he explained. "It was a laceration. It wasn't really that deep."
He tried to keep away from the doctors, but was ordered to the battalion aid station where medical officers looked at him, saying, "No Kuster, don't even tell me."
Despite his three times being wounded, none of Kuster's Marines think he's a bad luck charm. In fact, they see it the opposite way.
"Nobody around me seems to get hit," he said laughing. "A couple of my friends joke that I'm a bullet sponge."
In fact, Kuster doesn't even worry about his three Purple Hearts. He doesn't go out on combat patrols for now, but volunteers to help out where he can. He doesn't want to be anywhere else.
"My parents begged me to come home," Kuster said. "Everyone can't believe this is happening. But, I felt like if I was to go, I'd be turning my back on my Marines."
In fact, Kuster's more confident now than ever that he wants to make a career out of the Corps, although, he is considering a job change.
"I was thinking about intelligence," he said. "That seems fun. The doctors said I should be able to make a full recovery. The rocket hits were the only thing that truly rattled me inside, but I'm pretty much the same as I was... except I walk with a limp."
Sticking it out
Kuster's attitude of sticking with his unit isn't uncommon among the Marines wounded in Iraq. Among those wounded, 427 have returned to duty.
"Right after I got hit the first time, I wanted to go home," Graves admitted. "I didn't care about what we were trying to do. I'd only been here two weeks and got hit.
"I couldn't do that now," he added. "I wouldn't be able to leave my platoon behind. That would bug me for the rest of my life. It's one of those honor things, I guess... honor, courage and commitment."
"We've got tons of heroes from all ranks" said Sgt. Maj. Wayne R. Bell, sergeant major for 1st Marine Division.
"When I see those acts... that's what is expected when you're put in this division," said the 47-year-old Bostonian.
Graves' wounds are pretty much healed now, but he said one thing still nags him. He knows that once he returns to Camp Pendleton, he'll be getting stares.
"It makes me feel like everyone will be looking at me, especially if I'm still a (private first class)," he said. "Now that I have the medal, some of the mystery is gone, but it still holds a lot of respect for me."