On a hot August night in 2004, Baghdad’s Green Zone was attacked. A large number of mortars and rockets hit the four-square-mile zone in a display of aggression fomented by Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army.
The following day, and only a couple of miles away from us across the Tigris River, a group of Army Reservists, friends of mine from my Orlando unit, were defending a small government compound in Sadr City. During this battle, Staff Sergeant Salvatore Cerniglia was terribly wounded.
After I returned home, a brief controversy erupted when some young Marines were forced to return Purple Heart medals because they had received them for non-combat-related injuries instead of actual wounds from enemy action. One of these young men was run over in his foxhole while he was sleeping. Remembering Sal’s sacrifice, I wrote the following op-ed piece, published in the Orlando Sentinel on February 13, 2005:
PURPLE HEART MEDAL IS FOR ‘WOUNDS’ NOT ‘INJURIES’
The two Iraqi soldiers stood in the heat of Baghdad’s Sadr City last August without their helmets. Staff Sgt. Salvatore Cerniglia, one of the Army Reserve advisers to the 4th Battalion of the Iraqi Army, looked at them sternly. “Put your helmets on,” he ordered. Then he turned, just in time to see a rocket-propelled grenade flying toward his fighting position.
Cerniglia, who lives in Palm Harbor, felt his life become like a slow-motion movie. The enemy RPG exploded above him, and his body crumpled backward with his left leg bent in an unnatural direction. His field of vision changed to a curtain of red. Shaking his head, Cerniglia could see only the red, which he described as like a “filter” over his eyes. He couldn’t hear anything, and he couldn’t move his arms or legs. Slowly, the red faded and the bright colors of the world returned. As his hearing came back, so did the sounds of the battle that surrounded him.
Then the pain started, and he felt a hot burning on his chest, like a “branding iron” he said later. A fist-size piece of shrapnel was imbedded in the armor plate of his protective vest. There was no doubt his body armor had saved his life. He also had more serious wounds to his left arm and left leg. The two Iraqi soldiers had not been as lucky. One died when a piece of shrapnel struck his unprotected head. The other died from massive neck wounds.
Salvatore Cerniglia, “Sal” to his friends and fellow soldiers, came to the Army to make a difference. A native of New York City, he served as a captain in the Air Force many years ago. He returned to the military as an infantryman. Now, at the age of 54, he is looking at a military retirement forced upon him because of his wounds. A self-employed insurance adjuster in civilian life, Sal still considers himself lucky. At first he was told that he would probably lose his leg, but after five operations and a lot of physical therapy, that seems less likely now.
Recently, in ceremonies in Orlando, Cerniglia was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart Medal. The Purple Heart was for wounds he received while engaged in combat with a hostile force.
In contrast, it was recently announced that several young Marines, who had been awarded Purple Hearts for injuries received in Iraq, were having their medals revoked. Their injuries resulted from accidents that were not related to combat with the enemy. One of these young Marines was run over by a tank while he was sleeping in his foxhole.
Unfortunately, accidental deaths and injuries are unavoidable in the fast-moving clouds of war. These Marines, who surely served with honor and distinction, have suffered terribly because of their injuries. Still, the regulation is clear. Those who sustain injuries related to “accidents, to include explosive, aircraft, vehicular and other accidental wounding not related to or caused by enemy action” are not eligible for the Purple Heart. It is unfortunate that the officers in the Marine Corps who approved the awards in the first place made such an inexcusable mistake.
It may be embarrassing to the service members involved, but this special award, first created by George Washington during the Revolutionary War for a meritorious act, has a tradition that must be preserved. For generations, the Purple Heart has been a warrior’s medal for a warrior’s wounds sustained in mortal combat with an enemy force. The priceless value of this unique medal is in the sacrifice it takes to earn it. The enemy RPG forever changed Cernigila’s life and, while the young Marines should be honored for their service, combat-wounded warriors like Sal are the ones who have earned the Purple Heart.
SFC Chuck Grist