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Pentagon Spokesman Wrong on Purple Heart

An error, though soon corrected, shows confusion about medals for soldiers with brain trauma.

On Thursday, we published a story that said the Army isn't awarding Purple Hearts to some soldiers who suffered mild traumatic brain injuries in Iraq.

We found e-mails showing that some top medical commanders don't think the injury is serious enough to merit the honor, even though Army regulations [PDF] make it clear that soldiers with such head trauma are eligible for the award. Top brass acknowledged that commanders had mistakenly denied the honor to soldiers in the past, but said things were getting better. "We are moving in the right direction to fix this," Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's second-in-command told us.

They've still got a ways to go, if a slip-up by the Pentagon's top spokesman is anything to go by.

After our story ran, Geoff Morrell, spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was asked a question about the Purple Heart at the daily Pentagon press briefing. He told an ABC News reporter that the Purple Heart "has not been" authorized for mild traumatic brain injuries. Also known as concussions, such head wounds typically leave no visible signs of damage, though they can result in long-term cognitive impairment.

"I don't think that people think this is an appropriate medal for those types of injuries," he said.

That's not what Army regulations say, however. As far back as the 1950s, the regulations have contained an official list of wounds that "clearly justify" the Purple Heart, the nation's oldest military honor. One of them: "Concussion injuries caused as a result of enemy generated explosions."

The Pentagon has corrected Morrell's mistake. The official transcript contained this addition: "Correction: Each service ensures members who sustain a concussion/mild TBI are awarded the Purple Heart if the two basic Purple Heart criteria are met: wound was the result of enemy action or occurred in action with the enemy, and the wound required treatment by a medical officer."

So that settles it. Now we'll see how the Army responds to the soldiers we interviewed, who have battled unsuccessfully to receive the Purple Heart despite well-documented wounds. Morrell didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

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