Surrounded by family, friends, dignitaries, high ranking military officers and the pomp and circumstance of a military ceremony, seven soldiers ranging in rank from captain to private first class sat on the sprawling sun drenched, green Tomb Grove lawn at Mount Vernon Estate.
However, on this day, in this place, their ranks had been equalized by the reality of war. They were to share one common bond that each would have gladly foregone. They were about to enter that special military category: recipients of the Purple Heart Medal.
To the crowd last Thursday these seven soldiers were the personification of the true price of war. Their sacrifice, three in wheelchairs, others on crutches, one, in particular, staring into space as if detached from the events unfolding before him, will live on long after the American presence in Iraq ends.
Each name was called out and hung in the air as Gen. Richard Cody, vice chief of staff, U.S. Army, joined by Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth Preston, approached with that medal, which bears the profile of America's first Commander In Chief, whose tomb was just a short distance away, and pinned it to each soldier's chest.
* Specialist Garret Anderson, Army National Guard, Grand Rapids, Mich., age 28, forearm amputation.
* Staff Sergeant John Borders, Active Duty Army, London, Ohio, age 32, multiple injuries.
* Staff Sergeant Suzanne Haskins, Army Reserve, Seaville, N. J., age 45, multiple injuries
* Captain Robert S. Klinger, Pennsylvania National Guard, Frederick, Md., age 38, multiple fractures of the ankle
* Specialist Sergio Lopez, Active Duty Army, Bollingbrook, Ill., age 23, multiple fractures
* 2nd Lieutenant Adrian Perez, Active Duty Army, Vancouver, Wash., age 30, loss of sight in one eye
* Private First Class Maxwell D. Ramsey, Active Duty Army, Hilton Head, S.C., age 36, amputation left leg and right foot fracture.
"I truly wish no one had to earn the Purple Heart. And no one going into battle ever plans to earn a Purple Heart. But, it is perhaps the most solemn medal of all. It bears witness to a soldier's willingness to give their all," said Cody.
"The man who built Mount Vernon would be the first to understand their sacrifice. They have earned for themselves the honor of everyone in this nation," he said.
HIS REMARKS WERE BUTTRESSED by those of Gordon England, deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Defense and Gay Hart Gains, Regent, Mount Vernon Ladies Association, who opened the ceremony by proclaiming, "Your sacrifice is for the unborn generations just as those who fought in the Revolutionary War for General Washington."
She noted, "I have welcomed kings and princes and celebrities to this estate. But, I have never been so honored as I am today to welcome you soldiers and your families."
England reminded the audience of Washington's admonition to this newly established nation after the Revolutionary War. “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as being well prepared to meet an enemy," he said.
Citing America's involvement in two world wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War, England said, "By the end of the 20th century America had earned a period of peace. But, that didn't happen because on 9/11 terrorists turned civilian airliners into missiles."
Gains noted that the Purple Heart Medal was established by Washington on Aug. 7, 1782, during the final months of the Revolutionary War as a badge of distinction for meritorious action. It consisted of a heart made of purple cloth and was awarded to three sergeants from Connecticut regiments.
Known as the Badge of Military Merit, it was distinctive because it was available to the lower ranks. Until then only officers were eligible for decoration in European armies. "The road to glory in a patriot army is open to all," Washington wrote.
Following the revolution, the award ceased to exist until it was revived on Feb. 22, 1932, Washington's bicentennial birthday, by General Douglas MacArthur. Qualifications for receiving the Purple Heart have changed over the years. In 1995 those requirements were defined as "those wounded or killed in service to his or her country."
ALL THOSE RECEIVING the Purple Heart during this, the second such ceremony to be held at Mount Vernon Estate, were wounded by the Iraqi insurgents' weapon of choice — the improvised explosive devise or IED. As with all wounds of war it happens in an instant, but remains for a life time. That fact was etched in the faces of these soldiers.
As they and their families re-boarded the Walter Reed Army Hospital buses a comment from one summed up the ceremony. "This is one ceremony I wish I never would have had to attend," he told his wife as she pushed his wheelchair down the sloped path from Washington's Tomb.
Following the presentation ceremony each of the recipients and their family members filed past Washington's gravesite to place a red carnation in tribute to the man who had established the medal to honor their sacrifice. On each side of the tomb entrance stood the Joint Armed Services Color Guard.
Also participating in the tribute to the seven soldiers were the U.S. Army Band, "Pershing's Own"; Sergeant First Class Caleb Green, who sang the National Anthem; and Chaplain Col. Gerald Stone, U.S. Army, who gave the invocation. There were also the wives, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children of the warriors.
At one point, as Gen. Cody was speaking, Staff Sergeant Borders' wife Mollie reached down to hold his hand. His other was wrapped around his small son, Xander, seated on his lap in the wheelchair.