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Combat award inspires different views, same meaning

16 Sep 2004 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

Corporal George A. MacRae, of Virginia Beach, Va., and Lance Cpl. Chris S. Woulfe, of Middletown, N.Y., have a lot in common although they've never met.  They're both Marines, they've both seen combat in the far reaches of the world and they've both been wounded in action. 

Yet they haven't met. That's because one fought in the jungles of Guam and the other fights today in the streets of Iraq.  But they share the first authorized military award - the Purple Heart. 

MacRae had been fighting the Japanese for five months when he found himself on Guam.  It was there, after a night of banzai attacks from his enemy, he was wounded in combat.

"I felt a blow on my right elbow as if it was hit with a baseball bat.  I knelt and put my arm on the ground. It was red from the elbow down to the two white bones sticking out where my hand used to be. There was no pain, just a numbness," said MacRae.  He was a 23-year-old with Company K, 3rd Raider Battalion in 1944 when he found himself critically wounded in the middle of a firefight.  "My team leader came over to apply a tourniquet and a corpsman ran down the hill to me.  He started to place a tourniquet around my arm when there were two quick shots from somewhere and both Baker (the team leader) and the corpsman, Bennet, fell over."

MacRae was evacuated by a halftrack while his comrades fought back the attacking Japanese Imperial Marines.  Seven Marines died defending the vehicles that were trying to take MacRae and other wounded off the line. 

MacRae lived to be the curator of the Marine Raider Museum in Richmond, Va. and is now 87.  He and his attending corpsmen both survived the experience to receive their purple hearts, surviving their team leader Baker and 1,081 other Marines who died from the battles on the small island in the Marianas.  Of the Raiders who attacked Guam, 447 Marines and sailors claimed the Purple Heart.

Although the harrowing tales from the World Wars are many, the tales of today's warriors carry the same weight and fear in the mind of the teller.

"We'd been sent to Lutafiyah to conduct operations and we'd been receiving small arms fire for three days," said Woulfe, 23. 

The rifleman, assigned to 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, was sweating it out on a rooftop in Iraq - much different from the mud and jungle of Guam. It was then he joined the ranks of Marines like MacRae. 

"I was there when they started to attack us from 50 yards away with mortars," said Woulfe.

He knew it would be a good idea to get off the roof but found only more danger when he reached the ground.

"A mortar landed right outside the door I was next to ... I ducked and felt something hit my leg," he said.  "I stumbled back into the room happy to still be alive and started laughing, until I felt the burning in my thigh."

The piece of shrapnel Woulfe felt hit him was imbedded in his thigh and was still hot from the explosion.  He was fortunate like MacRae to have a corpsman on the scene.

"The corpsman was there in half a second and started cleaning me up.  All said and done, we took 13 mortars during that attack."

Woulfe will carry that piece of shrapnel with him for the rest of his life, a reminder of that day and of what he risked for the people of Iraq and his own country. Eighty-eight of the Marines in his battalion have joined him in receiving the award for combat wounds.

"I didn't think I'd ever get a Purple Heart.  I've come close a lot of times and I guess my bad luck finally caught up with me," he said.

These harrowing experiences earn both Woulfe and MacRae the right to wear the Purple Heart. Established by George Washington in 1782, the small purple ribbon and gold medal brings different thoughts to those who wear it.

"When I got home everyone remarked about the Purple Heart ribbon - sort of in awe you might say.  I always felt that I had done something wrong and got wounded when I should have tried to avoid (being wounded)," said MacRae. 

Conversations about experiences in war can often be awkward for returning veterans, especially those who blame themselves for being wounded. 

"I know I was dumb to fire full automatic with no more cover than three inches of grass," MacRae said about the day he was wounded.

Some Marines may feel humbled by the fact that their wound is not nearly as severe as the Marine's next to them.

"When I was in the hospital having my thigh treated I saw a soldier who had been hit with shrapnel in his face," Woulfe said solemnly, "I don't know what he went through, but what I have is nothing compared to the wounds he has."

How the award is treated by their friends and families is often based on the popularity of the conflict or how veteran-friendly the community is.  But despite whether the public sees the award as a badge of honor or shame, there is an underlying thread that the bearer gave more to his country than he was asked.

"I still think the Purple Heart demands the respect of other Marines and the general public," MacRae said.

Woulfe shares MacRae's opinion.

"Even the Americans that don't agree with us being (in Iraq) see the Purple Heart and understand the sacrifice that goes with it," he said. "Someone who hasn't been here and gone through what we have can never really understand the fear, pain or joy we feel (during war), but they can hear the stories and have some idea."

Some Marines even have the right to claim two or more Purple Hearts from their experiences in combat.

"I'll tell people (about my Purple Hearts) if they ask, but it's not something I like talking about," said Lance Cpl. Jonathan J. Lichty, a 23-year-old rifleman with 2/2.  Lichty hails from the small community of Payne, Ohio, where his father is the town barber.

I won't really have a choice about talking when I get back. With my father being the town barber, everyone already knows I've gotten two Purple Hearts, Lichty said with a grin. 

"Getting wounded out there is something you never want to happen, let alone twice," he said.  "People back home need to know there's no heroics involved.  If it happens, it happens.  I was never looking to get wounded ... you just find cover and hope for the best."

MacRae's Raider unit was no stranger to double, and even triple Purple Heart awards either.  Two hundred and fifty-five Marine Raiders were wounded twice, and 26 were wounded three times.

Lichty's insight into how today's Marines feel about the award is compounded by being a double recipient.  He sees it as a risk of the oath he took.

"Everyone who's received a Purple Heart has shed blood for something they believe in," said Lichty. "Sometimes it comes with the job of fighting terrorism and liberating a nation.

"Every time we go outside the wire we risk our lives.  When you come back inside the line with or without a wound you can only thank God you're alive."

"Nobody's immortal," said Woulfe. "Just because we're Americans doesn't mean we're invincible.  It isn't a game out here.  There will always be Purple Hearts as long as people are sacrificing for their country.  As long as we're asked to, we'll keep making those sacrifices."